This one-pot chicken and rice dish is rich with Middle Eastern flavor thanks to the bright notes of cardamom and burst of fresh herbs.
what do you like to cook?
When I tell people that I like to cook, they ask the most logical follow-up questions: “what do you like to cook?” Yet I can tell from the unimpressed look on their faces that they’re never quite satisfied with my reply: “a bit of everything.” I find inspiration from a walk through the market, my garden, dinner out at a restaurant, traveling, or browsing cookbooks. It’s never quite the same.
My girlfriend always comments that I don’t make many repeat meals. Mostly, that’s because I enjoy the experience of something new. Whether it’s new foods, new techniques, or new combinations, for me, the fun and challenges are in learning. That, and just being in the kitchen – as long as I’m not on dishwashing duty, that is.
But these days, I think I have arrived at a more precise answer. Middle Eastern cuisine may actually be my favorite type of food to cook. Ironically, I don’t have to look too far for this inspiration. I have Lebanese family heritage and have eaten a few of these foods since I was a kid.
why i love middle eastern food
While growing up, my grandfather’s brother and sister – my great aunt and uncle – would always contribute something Lebanese to family gatherings. Mostly, this included kibbeh, tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves, and pita bread. Of course, as is the nature of childhood, I never appreciated these foods at the time. Though I do remember going to my uncle’s house on a couple of occasions to help roll the lamb and rice stuffing up in grape leaves. I didn’t really understand this food, where it came from, or my Lebanese lineage, but his sense of humor and love of storytelling made it a fun project.
For those not familiar with this food, Middle Eastern cuisine is bright, fresh, and flavorful. It often focuses on seasonal fruits and vegetables, like figs, pomegranates, and eggplants, grains, and beans like bulgur, lentils, and chickpeas, in addition to bold herbs like dill and mint. I’ve also come to love their warm, fragrant spice combinations, such as cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, caraway, nutmeg, and anise. When done right, Middle Eastern food is never bland. Simple at times, perhaps, but never bland.
the jerusalem cookbook is a worth a try
Last fall, I picked up a copy of Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. Although a compilation of recipes, the book is also an authentic look at the complex history and culture of Palestinian, Israeli, Greek, Libyan, French, Moroccan, and many other influences on the foods of Jerusalem. It includes several of the dishes I remember my relatives making. There’s a whole chapter on stuffed foods, for instance. I’ve also learned that Jerusalem is the world capital of kibbeh, though no one seems to agree on its composition.
As we get into more fresh and seasonal foods, I can’t wait to make more of these dishes, such as roasted cauliflower and hazelnut salad, wheat berries with Swiss chard, and stuffed artichokes with peas and dill. This winter, I cooked mejadra on more than one occasion. Mejadra is a comforting dish made up of lentils and rice, seasoned well with a mix of spices and topped with crispy fried onions. It’s served warm and makes for an easy, filling, vegetarian meal.
Last week I had fun making three recipes from Jerusalem for dinner with friends. The main course was a one-pan chicken meal with caramelized onions and cardamom-scented rice. I served it with the roasted sweet potatoes and figs recipe, which is topped in an addicting sweet balsamic glaze. Dessert featured more cardamom, with tender pears poached in white wine. Everything was so good.
I often hear that there aren’t enough ethnic restaurants in our area of Vermont. That may be true, but nothing stops us from making the ethnic food we crave right at home. Jerusalem is a good starting place for recipes and also for imparting some less discussed history lessons. For now, I’ll leave you with my slightly adapted recipe for the cardamom chicken with caramelized onions and rice.Print