Rawia Bishara’s first book Olives, Lemons & Za’atar is bursting with food memories so vivid you can almost taste the flavors jumping off the pages. Rawia had us at za’atar and once we learned more about her philosophy on food and the culinary traditions that have influenced her cooking we were hooked for life. Today we are happy to have the opportunity to share some of what we learned with all of you.
OLDWAYS: Talk to our readers about what experiences in your life have influenced the food you cook.
RAWIA: Most significantly it was my mother’s cooking and meal making process. Her Sunday suppers and nightly meals were virtual meditations. She was a schoolteacher with 5 children and always on the go, but somehow managed to gather the entire family to sit down for a home cooked supper every night. She would prep the meal in the morning while making breakfast, then cook it after work and add her final touches. Meals were an expression of care for her. There was no Internet, cell phones and no fast food. There was conversation, reading, telling stories and organic produce.
OLDWAYS: Your restaurant, Tanoreen, in Brooklyn, has been in business for almost 15 years. In an age where restaurants come and go what do you believe keeps your customers returning time and time again?
RAWIA: Well, of course the basics: food, service and ambiance, but beyond those essentials, I think one of the keys is consistency… Many restaurants will be impressive the first time you dine, but when you return for the same dish, it’s not nearly as good. It doesn’t stand the test of time. I have been very adamant over the years that every customer that makes a trip to my restaurant enjoys the same level of food quality they have come back for some many times before… Also, I keep trying to push the envelope and to try new things. For instance, I just came up with a new dish: Beet Hummus… It’s vibrant pink and the beets work seamlessly. It’s a big hit and the recipe will definitely be in the next book!
OLDWAYS: What is it that you hope readers will learn or take away from your cookbook?
RAWIA: That in this day and age, food tradition shouldn’t be something that happens only a few times a year, at Christmas or Labor Day etc., but that food traditions happen every day… Memories carry stories, mythology and culture over generations, over centuries. Mealtime is an excuse to come together and connect. It’s something that we lack these days.
OLDWAYS: In your book you describe the meaning of mezze and the way these small plates can set the mood. Can you offer our readers some examples or advice for creating a mezze, depending on season or occasion?
RAWIA: I love mezze because it’s versatile for practically any occasion, from wedding to dinner party to a one on one special occasion. It can be meat heavy or vegan or somewhere in between. It can be a simple weeknight spread such as: a few olives, cheese, hummus, crudité, raw almonds, Labne, and warm Arabic pocket bread. Or for the summer, it can be more salad heavy (fatoush, tabouleh or beet salad), or can heartier, in the form of fresh baked spinach pies, baba ganoush, makdous (olive oil cured baby eggplants), and raw or cooked Kibbie... And honestly, any of these can be mixed and matched. That’s the beauty of mezze.
Mezze creates a mood first and foremost by simply gathering people. Secondly, can you imagine the visual, visceral, almost primal response between a mezze spread filled with salads and spreads, pickled eggplant, meats and breads of different colors textures and flavors and some store bought cheese and crackers... You can't even compare.
Whenever people visit my restaurant and ask me to choose their mezze, I always make sure to visit the table halfway though their course for one reason…. To see the smile on my their faces. I love that.
OLDWAYS: Reducing pickling time by boiling the vinegar is just one of the wonderful bits of advice you offer to readers. Can you share another culinary tip (or two) with our readers that you have picked up over the years that have truly changed your life?
RAWIA: Here are a few tips and short cuts that really make a difference:
I will say that one of my best tricks is the little bit of baking soda in the boiling water of chickpeas for hummus. It makes the final mixture so much smoother and fluffier. It’s a must.
Also, I make my “Tanoreen spices” in my restaurant and use it in countless dishes. I advise doing this at home as well. Personalize it, make a chicken spice mix with a few herbs and some spices, or a more robust mix for lamb etc., so that, you have a, go-to when cooking a quick weeknight meal. It takes the guess work out. And by all means, alter it to your taste.
"Tanoreen Spices" have 9 ingredients that I developed over years, and for certain dishes I still alter the measurements. I sell it at Tanoreen because when using my cookbook it makes life so much easier.
OLDWAYS: Last, but not least, we could not walk away from this conversation without asking: Can you share one of your favorite, easy recipes with our readers?
RAWIA: It would be my pleasure…
Makes 6 - 8 servings
In most Middle Eastern countries (apart from Nazareth, where baba ghanouj is called mutabal), the ingredients in this dish are as simple as eggplant, garlic and lemon juice—a lightened up, tahini-free version of baba ghanouj. But when I arrived in America, I experimented with various ingredients and found myself adding tomatoes, chile pepper and a hint of cumin to my mutabal. I serve it with grilled meat and chicken. My children love this preparation, which is also great spread on toasted or fresh Arabic bread, crusty flatbread or crackers.
3 medium eggplants, 2 1/2 to 3 pounds total
4 plum tomatoes or 2 Jersey tomatoes, finely chopped
2 chile peppers, seeded and finely chopped, optional
4 to 5 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or to taste
Juice of 2 lemons, plus more for finishing
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt to taste
Sliced cucumbers for garnish
Prepare a charcoal or gas grill for grilling over high heat, or turn 3 gas burners to high. Place the eggplants directly onto the coals or flame and grill, using tongs to turn them as the skin chars, until blackened all over. Set aside to cool.
Alternatively, roast the eggplant in the oven. Preheat the oven to 400°F and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Pierce the eggplants in a few places with a sharp knife, place them on the prepared baking sheet and roast, turning every 5 minutes or so, until the skin is blistered and begins to crack all over. Set aside to cool.
Slice the eggplants in half lengthwise and scoop out the flesh, transferring it directly to a strainer to allow the liquid to release. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the tomatoes with the chile peppers, if using, garlic, shallot, 1/2 cup parsley, 3 tablespoons oil, lemon juice, cumin, pepper and salt. Add the drained eggplant and mix together with a fork. Transfer the eggplant mixture to a serving bowl and drizzle with the remaining 3 tablespoons oil. Garnish with the remaining parsley and surround with the cucumber slices.