A Taste of Lebanon

When I was a kid, my mother liked to tell me the story of how she and my father met some of their friends back in the day. You see, Mom and Dad didn’t go to university directly after finishing high school; Dad earned a college diploma first, and Mom worked for a while. This meant that they were a few years older (and hopefully more mature) than most of their classmates. Not only that, but they had gotten married before they started university as well, which was (and I think still is) extremely unusual. This combination of factors meant that they didn’t really fit in with a lot of their peers. However, there was an extremely small community of international students attending the university at the time, and a lot of them were also older, and few were even married couples. My parents naturally fell in with this group of students and they became great friends. This meant that my parents (who are both white and from not only small towns, but military small towns) learned a lot about a number of international cultures and foods when otherwise they probably wouldn’t have done so.

A number of their friends were from Lebanon, and one of them (or possible a few of them, I may be misremembering) wanted to help publish a Lebanese cookbook to be sold in Canada. It was to include a lot of dishes that were common knowledge in Lebanon, but were considered “unusual” and “exotic” at the time throughout most of Canada. My parents got to be the testers for a lot of these dishes, since the authors were trying to tailor the recipes to a wider audience. Always enthusiastic about trying new foods, my parents were very happy guinea pigs.

Now, I think that A Taste of Lebanon: Cooking Today the Lebanese Way (Mary Salloum, 1983) is the book that this eventually became. My father bought my mother a copy for Christmas the year it first came out. My parents used that book regularly until it was passed down to me a few years ago when I started to show a greater interest in cooking.

Imagine my surprise, then, to stumble upon a brand new copy of this book at the Mid-East Food Centre; I didn’t realize that it was still in print! Not bad, considering it’s been more than 35 years. A quick search online revealed that it’s also available online as well. I would definitely highly recommend getting a copy of this book if you’re interested in Lebanese cooking even a little bit. As a bonus, it is a Canadian publication, so it focuses on ingredients that are actually available here.

Finding this book still for sale prompted me to go back to my own copy and make one of the easiest of the recipes therein: hommous bi tahini, i.e. chick pea dip with sesame seed paste. You can buy a large variety of types of hummus in just about every chain grocery store these days, since it’s considered healthy and trendy now. But when I was a kid my parents had to make it for us. Actually, since it’s a no-cook recipe (all you need is a blender), it makes a lot of sense to make your own hummus if you can.

I based the prices here on the everyday listings found on the Superstore website; you could probably find a lot of these ingredients even cheaper if you shop the sales.

Suraj chick peas @ $0.88 for a 540mL can = $0.88
Alkanater tahina @ $8.58 for 907ml, 60ml used = $0.57
Rooster Garlic @ $0.58 for 3 bulbs with 10 cloves each, 1 clove used = $0.02
Windsor iodized table salt @ $1.28 for 1kg, 2.84g used = $0.004
No Name lemon juice @ $2.48 for 946ml, 60ml used = $0.16

Total cost for 1 batch = $1.634

Now compare that to the pre-made prices, which start at $3.47 for a comparable amount, and go up to about $5.00 for the fancier stuff. That’s a pretty big saving if you make it yourself, and it’ll add up if you’re the kind of person who eats it regularly!

Now, my favourite way to eat hummus is on fresh pita bread — and one of the next recipes on my list is pita bread itself, which is also in this cookbook. But I know a lot of health-conscious people prefer it as a veggie dip, as it’s great with sliced sweet peppers, carrots, or celery. (Of course, it’s vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free too — not that these dietary trends were even on the radar of this classic food.) A Taste of Lebanon recommends that hummus and pita be served with any fish recipe, baked kibbi, tabouli, barbequed chicken, or shish kabob. It is truly one of the most versatile dishes I have ever made.

Grilled Cheese & Orange Slices

I’ve been so busy prepping for my biggest market event of the season that I haven’t been able to set aside the time to cook anything fancy. But we’ve all still gotta eat!

Dinner last night was grilled cheese on homemade bread (my usual go-to of bread machine herb bread without the herbs) and orange slices. Of course, the ones I made for me were with lactose-free cheese; instead of the usual cheddar I had a rather nice Gouda, which was a nice change.

I’m looking forward to the holiday market season being over so I can spend more time cooking — especially cooking for Christmas!

The Nightmare Before Christmas Garage

Halloween is all over but for the consumption of vast quantities of candy. Due to rainy weather, we didn’t get as many trick-or-treaters as I thought we would this year, so we have boxes of full-sized candy bars on top of what the kids accumulated. I think I’m going to have to Google “things to make with leftover Halloween candy”.

Of course, after Halloween there’s also lots of cleaning up and packing away to do, but before I get to that I’d like to share my favourite part of this year’s decorations: the Nightmare Before Christmas garage.

You see, this year marks the 25th anniversary of one of my favourite movies (and Thing 2’s all-time fave so far), The Nightmare Before Christmas. I thought that part of my outdoor decor should definitely reflect this fact. I purchased the little Jack Skellington inflatable on the right, and the larger one on the left was a generous gift from a friend. I made the Oogie Boogie “moon” light cover out of a plastic platter, a black Bristol board cut-out, and a yellow light bulb. The “hill” on the garage door was just more Bristol board taped on and cut out in the desired shape, with breaks and slight overlaps between the panels so I could still open and close the door. Honestly, it wasn’t terribly difficult, but I was really happy with it all in all.

As for actual costumes the day of, I wore my Robin Hood: Men in Tights costume during the day, and my Discworld Death to take my kids trick-or-treating at night. Death was very well received by most, although he did frighten a few little ones (he’s enormous, after all). I really did enjoy chasing the teenagers. The kids wore their Borderlands 2 costumes, and they were thrilled when a few people even knew who they were supposed to be.

I’d say that it was a pretty great Halloween.

Graveyard Five-Layer Dip a.k.a. Wacko Taco Dip

Every year for our family Halloween party, Thing 2 gets really excited when I tell her that I’m going to make what she calls “Graveyard Dip”. It’s really just a basic five-layer dip that I learned how to make from my cousin, decorated a bit to fit the Halloween theme. My cousin calls it “Wacko Taco Dip”, which is what we call it the rest of the year when I bring it to parties without the “gravestones”. It’s really quick and simple to make, and can be made the night before (or even a few nights before) if you’re well-prepared, or immediately before an event if you’re not. It will taste just as good either way. The measurements of the recipe may seem kind of arbitrary at first glance, but they’re made to be the size of a single package of that ingredient. If you’re doling out the ingredients from larger containers, don’t be too worried that your measurements are totally precise, since this recipe is very forgiving.

When I discovered that I was lactose intolerant, one of the reasons I was sad was that I couldn’t have this dip any more. However, I’ve discovered that it’s now possible to buy lactose-free cream cheese, lactose-free sour cream, and lactose-free cheddar cheese. I substitute them in equal quantities for their counterparts in the recipe and it doesn’t bother my tummy at all!

Graveyard Five-Layer Dip a.k.a. Wacko Taco Dip
Yields one 9″ X 13″ pan of dip

Ensuring that it is broken into small pieces, fry until lightly browned and cooked through:
450g lean or extra lean ground beef
Pour off fat. Line a plate with paper towels. Put ground beef on paper towels to soak up any residual fat.
In a small mixing bowl, mix until smooth:
250mL sour cream
227g cream cheese
Spread mixture evenly on the bottom of a 9″ x 14″ pan. Glass is preferable for looks alone; plastic or metal work just as well.
Sprinkle cooked ground beef evenly over the mixture as the second layer.
For the third layer, spread evenly over the contents of the pan:
650mL salsa
For the fourth layer, spread evenly over the contents of the pan:
320g Tex Mex shredded cheese
For the fifth layer, spread evenly over the contents of the pan:
227g shredded iceberg lettuce

If making Wacko Taco dip, the dish is complete! Serve alongside a bowl of your favourite tortilla chips.

If making Graveyard Five-Layer Dip, take:
10 to 12 round tortilla chips
On each of them, write “RIP” with a:
black, fine-tipped edible marker
Push each of these chips into the dip halfway so that the “RIP” is visible on the top. Now you have your gravestones. Serve alongside a bowl of your favourite tortilla chips.

Soup & Bread

I’m still trying to keep the energy consumption around the house as low as possible post-tornado, in an attempt to do my part to keep demand on the grid low until the Merivale power station is repaired. So tonight’s dinner was as simple as possible:

That’s Slow Cooker Caribbean Lobster Bisque that I had made back in August in bulk, so all I had to do was thaw it in the microwave and serve with the last of my ciabatta buns! Super easy. Make-ahead meals are perfect for times like this when it’s just not possible or practical to make a complicated homemade meal. Sadly, this marks the last of the bisque I had in the freezer, so I’ll have to make some more the next time I find lobster on sale — after all of the repairs to the grid are made.

Chicken Salad Sandwich

Yesterday I made a visit to Costco, and was it ever slammed! I guess a lot of people lost a lot of their perishables to the power outage, and had to stock up. Not only that, but with the power out for so much of the weekend and a request for people to stay off of the roads Monday, most people weren’t able to do their weekend grocery shopping.

While I was at Costco, I picked up a rotisserie chicken, which at $7.99 for a fully cooked bird is the best price around, so far as I know. I honestly am not certain whether buying poultry cooked at a grocery store is more energy-efficient than cooking it at home, but I have an inkling that it is. If not, well, at least I wasn’t cooking it near dinner time, which tends to be a peak time for energy usage because so many of us have electric stoves and microwaves.

From what I understand, the rerouting of power around the downed Merivale power station means that the grid is just holding until the station is repaired. However, a large spike in energy usage, such as everyone running their A/C on a hot day, would likely black out the city again. So, to do my part I’m trying to be as conservative with my electricity as possible. (And did I mention that the tornado count for last Friday has gone up from two to six?)

At any rate, I decided to do another cold dinner, so I stripped the chicken carcass and chopped up all of the meat into bite-sized pieces. Then I mixed them with some chopped green onions and mayonnaise. I served the chicken salad with baby spinach on toasted ciabatta bread (also from Costco). As sides, I peeled oranges and sliced strawberries.

The weather yesterday was rainy and dull, so while cooking outdoors could have been done if necessary, I wasn’t really looking forward to it. Sadly, tomorrow’s weather isn’t predicted to be any nicer; actually, we’re supposed to get thunder and lightning again. Yay?

Bacon-N-Egg Bagels & Spinach Salad

What with the tornado over the weekend, and the resulting damage and power outages affecting hundreds of thousands of people across the city, my focus hasn’t exactly been on cooking for this last little while. Not only that, but the city has asked that we stay off the roads as much as possible to allow priority use for emergency and Hydro vehicles, and to use as little electricity as possible so as not to overload what’s left of the grid. Luckily it hasn’t been so hot that we’ve needed air conditioning, which is a huge power suck, and it hasn’t been super cold — although to take the edge off the temperature in the evenings, I’ve smelled a lot of fireplaces in the area being fired up earlier in the season than usual.

Not wanting to use a lot of electricity means that I’m not doing a lot of cooking that has long cooking times. That means no canning (which requires hours and hours of time with the stove running), or slow-cooked dishes that can run 24 hours or more to make. Bacon and eggs is honestly one of the quickest hot meals that I know how to make, so that’s what I went for. Fry up a package of bacon, make up four eggs over easy, and toast four bagels. Add the condiments of your choice and you’ve got a lovely sandwich that’s as good for supper as for breakfast. To make it a bit healthier, I added a nice salad made with baby spinach, avocado, and tomatoes from my garden. And that’s dinner in a flash!