Middle East Feast
A couple of weeks ago, I met New York Times reporter and deft trend-detector Allen Salkin at a party, and the subject of Lebanese food came up. Next thing I know, Allen is hatching a plan of inviting a few people over for a Lebanese feast—one where some guests (including me) would double as cooks. I loved the idea, though let me clarify that the me-cooking suggestion wasn't my own. But because I come from that massively food-obsessed country, people tend to assume I'm a natural cook (before I disabuse them of the notion). Still, the challenge of doing a command-performance for about 10 people—more than I ever really cook for—was just masochistic enough to get my attention.
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I'm very glad I said yes. The dinner was a blast. Allen made crispy-skinned, lusciously moist Lebanese-style chicken roasted with garlic and lemon. Monica Michael Willis, the senior features and travel editor for Country Living (she's half-Lebanese), made a delicious loobyeh—a classic dish of fresh green beans simmered in garlic, olive oil and tomato—plus outstanding hummus and baba ghanouj. Time Out New York's Eat Out editor Gabriella Gershenson put together a dessert I'm still dreaming about: semolina cake soaked in a syrup of orange blossom water and cardamom, topped with fresh figs and mint leaves, and drizzled with yogurt.
As for me, I bent the rules a bit by making a dish that's more often considered Syrian or Palestinian than Lebanese (but really, when it comes to Middle Eastern food—if we can leave politics out of this—borders tend to blur). The dish is called a fatté, and it's made with fried pita topped with a layer of garlic-spiked yogurt, then a layer of a meat or vegetable like lamb or eggplant or spinach, then pine nuts sautéed in butter. (I made the spinach version, one of my favorites.) The recipe is easy to pull off (for two people or 10) and tends to make people think you're handy in the kitchen—a potentially dangerous idea.
Here's the recipe (this one serves four), adapted from Aida Karaoglan's Lebanese cookbook Food for the Vegetarian: