“Palestine on a Plate” – Cooking with love

Over the last 10 years, I’ve taught hundreds of students from the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, Qatar, UAE, Iraq, Kuwait. Bedouins and poets, engineers and pilots, all ended up in my classroom, and we bonded over a love of good food, culture, and stories shared over tiny cups of aromatic, cardamom-laced Saudi coffee, dates from royal orchards, and sugar-soaked pastries their wives had lovingly prepared that morning.

I’ve long been drawn to the cuisine of the Mediterranean and Middle East, with its rich bounty of fresh herbs, vegetables, and olive oil paired with tangy yogurt cheeses and garlicky dips. However, until recently, I had zero experience with the cuisine and culture of Palestine until receiving a copy of Joudie Kalla’s exquisite “Palestine on a Plate” (one of my blog’s Top Cookbooks of 2016) and taking a hands-on Palestinian class in Tokyo two weeks ago.

Like many staple dishes common throughout the Middle East, there’s a long, rich history of shared lineage (hummus, falafel, ful, stuffed grape leaves), of not wasting a morsel (recycled bread salads such as fattoush), and making the most of the season’s bounty. Joudie grew up in a Palestinian household; the recipes in the book are methods and ingredients learned from her mother and grandmothers. Although some dishes have been adapted for modern sensibilities (less fat, less fuss, and less time-consuming), all are true to traditional Palestinian cooking.

Beginning with a lovingly photographed guide to “my world of ingredients,” chapters include “Good Morning Starters” (ijeh, ful mudammas, fattet hummus, figs with labneh and honey on toasted bread, gorgeous sumac-y tomatoes, fluffy za’atar buns), hearty pulses and grains (freekeh-stuffed peppers, freekeh salad with marinated chicken and pomegranate dressing, lentil and beetroot salad with parsley and sumac dressing and grilled halloumi, maftoul tabbouleh, falafel, kubbeh), an entire chapter devoted to vibrant vegetarian dishes (tabbouleh-stuffed vine leaves, spinach and cheese parcels, mutabbal three ways, stuffed vegetables), lamb and chicken (makloubeh, kufta bil tahineh, warak inab, shakriyeh, fatayer, za’atar chicken), fish (saffron and lemon cod, mullet, sea bream, sumac and za’atar roasted monkfish, as well as squid, prawns, and shellfish), and a gorgeous dessert chapter that recalled the dishes shared with students: Yaffa orange cheesecake, m’t’abak, namoura, rosewater rice pudding, mandarin orange blossom cake, and very moreish tahini brownies.

As is standard for books I review, I chose several recipes to test and photograph: the lentil and beetroot salad with parsley and sumac dressing with grilled halloumi, za’atar buns (I used fresh yeast), and mandarin orange blossom cake. Finding fresh beetroot and imported halloumi was a bit of a Herculean challenge in Japan, but one that was well worth it.

Recalling Ottolenghi’s vibrant, stunning vegetable dishes, the lentil salad is my new go-to favorite for entertaining or festive dinners; the contrast of colors between the fluorescent beetroot, silky preserved lemons and bright punch from the parsley is visually impressive as well as a delicious contrast of textures and flavors. The sumac dressing (which includes white wine vinegar and lemon juice) and preserved lemons add a bright (but not overpowering) acidity, while the grilled halloumi adds a savory counterpoint. The za’atar buns are based on a recipe of Nigella Lawson’s and produced a moist, fluffy roll that pairs well with hearty soups or spreads. Finally, the mandarin orange cake was an interesting one as the flour is composed entirely of semolina, an ingredient normally used in namoura / revani / basboussa that is baked then bathed with a fragrant orange blossom-laced sugar syrup. Made with olive oil and whole boiled oranges, it keeps wonderfully moist for several days. I opted to bake it in my NordicWare Citrus loaf pans and topped with candied orange slices.

The recipes worked flawlessly as written; I opted to test in metric rather than the US conversions. Most ingredients should be readily available at your local grocery, with the exception of some of the grains (maftoul, freekeh) and seasonings (za’atar, rosewater, orange blossom water). Gorgeous photography by Ria Osbourne beautifully captures the finished dishes, along with scenes of vibrant everyday life in Palestine (markets, kitchens, street scenes, quiet moments at rest). The vegetarian chapter alone is worth the price of admission, plus I loved that many dishes come together quickly. Too often, I find myself purchasing cookbooks that are beautiful to look at but woefully impractical for weeknight cooking; not so with “Palestine on a Plate.” I also appreciated that Joudie includes healthier options for baking instead of deep-frying as I try to keep an eye on my fat intake and generally avoid fried foods.

Joudie’s tribute to her family, her home, and her rich Palestinian heritage is one that deserves a place of honor on your cookbook shelf; not only gorgeous to look at, every dish begs to be made and devoured, and Joudie’s prose will flood your senses with the sights, sounds, and smells of a Palestinian kitchen.

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