In the Kitchen: A Cooking Lesson – Lebanese Style

One of the unexpected benefits of writing a local food column is the number of people I have met who enjoy cooking as much as I do. People have a passion for food and especially their cherished family recipes.

Food is a universal language and foods from our past or from our cultural heritage are things we can all understand. We all have vivid “food memories.” I do not remember much about my maternal grandmother but I can distinctly recall that her house always smelled like chocolate chip cookies. Food memories can be powerful reminders of our past and connections with loved ones that we have lost through the years. They should be preserved and enjoyed.

I connected with a new friend, Walker Dowell, over our common love of Lebanese food. I grew up in Vicksburg, a town with a wonderful Lebanese community. My grandmother lived across the street from a lady who made fabulous Kibbeh (pronounced kib’-bee) patties. We had never eaten anything that tasted similar to her local version of the Lebanese national dish. I can still remember fighting with my sister over the pine nuts hidden inside.

Walker has Lebanese ancestors who originally settled in South Jackson.  His family and other Lebanese families in the Jackson area formed the Cedars of Lebanon Club, and over the years worked to celebrate their cultural heritage and the traditions and recipes that bonded them together.

Walker shared a family cookbook from the club that was filled with loads of wonderful family recipes — from many local families. He tried to make a few recipes and I tried a few as well. However, something was missing – the food was just not quite right.

We needed something more. We needed help.  We needed direction and guidance.

In short: We needed Sitte.

Walker’s Sitte (the word for grandmother in Lebanese Arabic) is Nora Walker. She is 94 years old and “going strong on a Mediterranean diet.” She agreed to give us a cooking lesson.  What a fun night. Sitte gave Walker, Emily Davidson (Walker’s cousin) me, and a few of my fellow cooking fanatics a Lebanese cooking lesson. 

She was amazing and was able to show us how to taste and make adjustments to get the recipes just right.  And encouraged us to enjoy these food memories. The night was fantastic and left us full of delicious Mediterranean favorites, full of the confidence to prepare them for ourselves, and full of wonderful food memories.

Life is good — life with a Sitte is even better.

Embrace your food memories and find out how to cook them. Then, be sure to pass them down to the next generation.

Walker said my favorite line of the night. He took one bite of the tabouleh salad (after Sitte had made some flavorful adjustments) and said it “tasted just like home.”

Tabouleh – Wheat Salad

1 cup cracked bulgur wheat (#1, if you can find it. The metro has a couple of Mediterranean grocery stores.)

6 green onions, chopped or finally sliced

1/2 cup fresh mint, chopped, or 3 tablespoons dried mint

4-5 tomatoes, chopped

1 cup fresh parsley, chopped

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup olive oil

salt and pepper to taste 

allspice to taste

In a large bowl with a fine colander. Rinse wheat and soak in warm water for about 20 minutes. Drain well and squeeze out as much water as possible.

Combine all the ingredients and mix well. Chill for at least 30 minutes before serving. Toss and correct seasonings before serving.

Cucumber and Yogurt Salad

Salad may be served on a bed of a crisp lettuce leaves.

3 firm and large cucumbers, peeled, half, and cut into thin slices.

1 1/2 cups plain Greek yogurt

2 cloves of garlic, pressed or finally minced about 3 tablespoons fresh mint, divided about 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

In the bottom of a large bowl, combine pressed garlic cloves, salt and about two tablespoons of fresh mint, muddle this with a mortar, cookie press, or back of a spoon. Crush the mint, salt and garlic together to form a paste.

Forming layers in the bowl beginning with mint mixture, then Greek yogurt, then a layer of cucumbers. Sprinkle with a little additional salt and the remaining 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh mint.

Chill in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes.

When ready to serve, toss and combine well. Adjust seasonings, if needed.

Stuffed Squash

Nora’s recipe for this was one of our favorite things we cooked and it goes back to the amazing generation that never threw anything away or wasted any food.

12 medium yellow squash

1 cup rice (Uncle Ben’s Rice is Nora’s preferred brand)

1 1/2 pounds ground chuck

1 large can of tomato juice

salt and pepper to taste

allspice to taste

1 clove of garlic, chopped

1 teaspoon dried mint

Cut the necks off of the squash and reserve. Trim ends and use and a small teaspoon or apple corer to core out the inside of each squash. 

Reserve all cores and seeds. 

Combine the meat, rice and season with salt, pepper, and allspice.

Stuff squash with the meat and rice mixture leaving about 3/4 inch unfilled to allow the rice to expand.

In a large heavy bottom stock pot, place squash straight up in the pan. Use the reserved squash necks to keep everything straight up and down. Add tomato juice, chopped garlic, and dried mint. Add additional water so that there is enough liquid that covers the squash about 2/3 of the way up. Cover the pot and cook on medium-to-medium high heat for about 35 minutes to an hour.

** Nora’s Squash Cores

This really was one of the most delicious tasting things we made the night of the cooking class. With all the squash cored, Nora put the insides of the squash, mainly the seeds and a little squash flesh, in a microwave safe dish. She sprinkled on about 1 teaspoon dried onion flakes, a little salt and pepper, and about 4 tablespoons of butter (or less if desired), cut into small pats.

Cover with plastic wrap and vent one corner. Microwave for three minutes. Serve hot. It was absolutely fantastic and no food was wasted!!  You can prepare this with sliced squash.  It does not only apply to the leftover cores.

Stuffed Grape Leaves

This was the main featured dish and recipe of the evening. Sitte is “known” for her grape leaves. Everyone was excited to learn her technique and I have always assumed this is a very difficult recipe. Nora made it seem very simple, and while we all admitted that her ability to quickly roll grape leaves wase far superior to ours, we all got the hang of it and our shapes improved with a little practice.

1 jar of grape leaves (I found these at the local Mediterranean grocery)

1 cup to 1 1/2 cups rice

1-pound lean ground chuck

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon allspice

1 cup fresh lemon juice

Rinse grape leaves and allow to drain in a colander. Remove the tiny grape vine stem at the base of each leaf. Set aside any thick leaves reserving these leaves for lining the bottom of the pot.

When ready to roll:

Take one grape leaf at a time and place 1 tablespoon of meat and rice mixture across the base of the leaf. Fold sides toward one another and begin to roll up the grape leaf. They will look like cigars or about the shape of an index finger. Roll leaves tightly but allow a little room for rice to expand.

Arrange stuffed leaves in a heavy stock pot that is been lined with a few of the thicker grape leaves. Alternate direction with each roll.

Sprinkle salt on the top once all leaves have been rolled. Place a heavy plate on top of the leaves to keep them weighed down. Pour about a half a cup of water and a half a cup of fresh lemon juice around the stuffed leaves and simmer for about 40 minutes on low heat. Add additional 1/2 cup lemon juice and cook about 10 minutes more.

Serve leaves hot, warm, or even cold.

Eggplant Supreme or Steak ‘L Mihshee

2 large eggplants

1-pound lean ground chuck

1 large onion, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 – 4 ounce can tomato paste

2 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon allspice

3 tablespoons pine nuts

Peel eggplant and slice into one-inch-thick slices. Arrange slices on a heavy bottom cookie sheet and drizzle each side with a little olive oil. Broil, flipping until brown on both sides.

Sauté ground chuck, olive oil, and onion and a heavy sauté pan. Add tomato paste, water, and seasonings. Cook slowly until meat is tender. Add pine nuts and remove from heat.

In a medium casserole dish, place a row of eggplant, then add sauce and then another row of eggplant. Alternating until all the ingredients are used.

Cover and bake at 350° for one hour. Serve over steamed rice.

Kibbeh is one of my favorite Lebanese dishes but we ran out of time. Sitte explained that Kibbeh is best made in the Fall. We promised to meet again for another lesson, and she will go over several different types of her family’s favorite Kibbeh recipes. I cannot wait and I will keep you posted!!