Every time that I have walked into the Saab household, it has been nothing short of amazing. There is always a beautiful Lebanese inspired feast on the dinner table or an amazing breakfast waiting for us to dig into once we've awoken from our slumber. My dear Maria will always have coffee brewing and insists that she plate my meal for me, letting me relax as a guest in their household. I get that warm and fuzzy feeling every time that I visit her in DC from NYC because it's something about being under a roof with a family that is so pleasant. I am constantly intrigued and inspired by their cuisine, wondering how they take simple, predominantly vegetarian friendly ingredients and make them taste so wonderful.
In the first of my guest collaborations, I invite you into the palate pleasing world of Maria Saab. From her sense of fashion to her culinary inhibitions, this lady knows how to keep it interesting.
Makes a mean…
Stir fry. In college, I lived off variations of brown rice, chicken, and veggies (back then they were of the predominantly the frozen variety). Now with some added patience and curiosity, my wok is filled with all kinds of healthy goodness and drizzled with a spicy peanut sauce...and I mean spicy!
California roll and spicy tuna roll at Ichiban Sushi in Mclean, VA. Not necessarily the best sushi I have ever had, but there is something special about this little hole in the wall.
Beets! I love the rich fuschia color and of course the taste. You can slice some up for a smoothie, add them to a fresh salad, or even add them to a grilled cheese (with roasted butternut squash tossed in the middle somewhere #heaven).
Banana & nut butter anything.
You know that scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding where a young Fortula (played by Nia Vardalos) flashes back to her early childhood days in the cafeteria? She is incredibly awkward with big glasses, dressed in a wool turtleneck, and totally unkempt against the throng of little white girls with perfectly plaited hair. Little Fortula manages to get a seat at the lunch table and opens her lunch container that is filled with moussaka, a delicious eggplant bake drenched in bechamel, tomato, and beef goodness. While you and I are salivating here, her classmates look over to her lunch in sheer disgust. “What is that MOOSEKAKA?!?”
This portion of the movie is a familiar scene of my childhood. This is not because I was terribly awkward and wore turtlenecks (I did have a unibrow, however, but that is a story already told), but because I was the elementary school foreigner who came to lunch with ethnic cuisine in a pyrex. While for many years I longed to be PB&J on white, I never knew that later in my adultlife I would be the envy of my law school lunch table with leftovers of tabbouleh and sambousek (Lebanese meat pies).
Growing up in a Lebanese household meant I grew up extremely well-fed, as you can probably imagine. My mother, bless her heart, always made sure to have a meal prepared for us daily before leaving to work. This is a luxury I get to still enjoy as I remain somewhere between an attorney and a child and continue to live at home (as they say... #BLESSED). Processed foods rarely made it into our pantries, which makes complete sense if you are familiar with a “Mediterranean Diet.” In a totally unsystematic way, my parents emphasized eating an abundant amount of fruits and vegetables, opting to dress foods in olive oil and lemon juice over bottled dressings, and grilling chicken and fish as animal protein. We Med-Sea inhabitants are definitely not carb-averse. Pita bread is essentially a utensil and not simply something you crave with a side of hummus. In its true form, pita is the vehicle in which you carry rice, salads, and the like into your mouth. Sexy is the only word I can use to describe it.
While many of you may not have the luxury of living next to a Mediterranean restaurant or a Greek/Israeli/Arab neighbor who incessantly invites you over for dinner....or are in no position to jet-set to the most economically, politically, and socially conflicted parts of the world, here are some tidbits on Middle Eastern cuisine you can carry with you in order to start adding those wonderful flavors of extra virgin olive oil and tahini that you have been longing for.
Simple, but well fashioned.
There is definitely nothing simple about the quality of taste or flavor in Middle Eastern cuisine. But the ingredients truly aren’t too exotic and do not require a visit to a specialty grocery store. The key to success in creating these mouthwatering dishes is finding high quality ingredients and combining them in just the right way. One of the most annoying things my mom says to avoid teaching me how to cook Lebanese food is, “You just add X and Y and Z until it tastes right!” It’s pretty hard to know how something is supposed to taste without actually knowing measurements, but the woman is right. While there is a foundation to the recipes, experimenting with the proportion of each can really make the difference here.
To take things to the next level, focus on how you garnish or decorate your dish. This could be an extra drizzle of olive oil or balsamic vinegar to your salad. Maybe adding pomegranate atop baba ghanoush. Or even toasting up pine nuts to combine with basmati rice. We love fresh ingredients that are creatively arranged and intelligently designed. This is where we really capture the taste buds!
Everything in moderation.
If you go to the Middle East, you will find that mezza is the most common and traditional style of eating. Similar to tapas, mezza is arranged into small plates, but these plates come out in various stages. Typically, you start with salads and starters-- like tabbouleh or fattoush, hummus, and labneh (kefir cheese/yogurt spread)--and then move to the meats. Dessert is the final round and consists of fruit, but can sometimes include baklava with a nice Turkish coffee or tea to accompany it. What this means is you need a game plan to handle this meal! Taking small bites and sampling a little bit of everything means you make it successfully through a dinner or a lunch. If you can master this strategy, you won’t suffer from food #FOMO by the time dessert comes around.
Food is a gift, and a great gift is food.
From an early age, Middle Eastern mothers instill in their children’s minds that to be a good guest and an even better host is to always be generous. Typically, food is the means by which we accomplish this. You never come to someone’s home empty handed. Conversely, you never let someone into your home without offering a three-course meal. How you achieve this is by always preparing for more than who you expect to eat. If you are a family of five, you cook for at least eight in case your nieces and nephews come around. Or perhaps you keep an extra box of baklava in the freezer to serve when someone comes over to just say hello.
One thing to remember about being a guest in a Middle Eastern home is that you can never decline an offering of food. It is the utmost insult! You may be on that five-day juice cleanse or have sworn off carbs in favor of a paleo diet, but that won’t matter when your Middle Eastern friend brings out a slab of knafeh drizzled with extra sugar syrup. Use those forgotten skills from your childhood days moving peas around your dinner plate to feign eating if you really have no room for food. If you do choose to eat, I assure you that you will like whatever comes your way. Just keep in mind that we sincerely believe the key to your heart is through your stomach and we always aim to please.
It’s more than what’s on your plate.
What makes eating in a Lebanese home special is not solely what’s going in your mouth, but the experience itself. This is a time for cooking with one another, being amongst family and friends, and simply enjoying your meal. During the summer, for example, my parents keep an “Open-Door-Sunday-BBQ” policy where every Sunday, my extended family and friends come by for a barbecue. We switch up what’s on the grill, whether it be burgers, chicken, fish, kabobs, or some plantains. The actual meal and its components are simple, however as I mentioned before, it's the total experience that makes it truly special. Congregating with one another, enjoying the sunshine, and taking time out of our busy schedules to just relax. There are definitely no shortages of extra helpings, but beyond the food we are making memories and building on traditions which is what truly keeps us grounded.