What I chiefly remember about my grandmother’s Los Angeles kitchen was that she was always in it. Lebanese cooking is labor intensive. There’s lamb to be freshly ground for kibbe, all those grape leaves to be stuffed and rolled, bread to be kneaded and baked, vegetables to be pickled, meat pies to be shaped. Grandma had a big scary looking meat grinder, but no food processor, no blender. Almost everything she did, she did by hand.
I’ve got all her recipes, because in the mid-sixties, her orthodox church in LA published a cookbook. Magic Cookery is half Lebanese treasures and half American classics like “Red and Green Salad Mold,” “Spicy Tuna Casserole,” and “Pot Roast Vinaigrette.” My copy is well loved – stained and spattered, at least on the Lebanese half.
Even with my collection of appliances, though, Lebanese food takes a huge amount of work and I don’t have time. While I love the stuff I haven’t cooked it in ages, not since before my dad died several years ago. I wish Bloomington had a great Middle Eastern restaurant. I’d eat there every day. But it doesn’t and I crave it like I do no other food.
Then last Tuesday a friend of mine from grad school was in town. I’ve probably seen him three times in the last 20 years, but when we were at school here we bonded quickly over the fact that we both had a parent of Lebanese descent – my father and his mother. So when I invited him for dinner, I didn’t spend much time puzzling over what to cook. I did, however, spend the entire day in the kitchen.
And a very good day it was. The painstaking nature of the cooking forced me to slow down what has been the frantic pace of my life lately. My fingers remembered the motions as if I’d been doing it daily. Arrange a grape leaf on the cutting board, spoon on the filling, roll, tuck, roll and finish. Repeat, and repeat again. Almost hypnotized by the repetitive rhythm of my tasks, my mind wandered among long forgotten memories. My grandmother died in 1969, but without looking up I couldn’t have said whether I was in my kitchen, or hers.
I had made pickled turnips a few days before, fresh beautiful little turnips from the Farmers Market, hot pink from beet juice, full of crunch and vinegar bite. I stuffed grape leaves – some with lamb and rice, fragrant with allspice and cinnamon, and some vegetarian, stuffed with chick peas, rice, parsley and mint.
My blender made short work of hoomos, and baba ganooj, (idiosyncratic spellings, but that’s how Magic Cookery has them, so that’s the way it is in my house) and because I bought 6 eggplants in case some of them were bitter and none of them was, I made another roasted eggplant dip, with mint and garlic and tomato. Looking for a use for the last two eggplants, I found a recipe in the book that was a kind of Middle Eastern ratatouille – chickpeas, tomatoes, garlic, mint and good, grassy olive oil, all stewed together.
My husband, who cooks most of the things in our house that use wheat, made the tabooley and a big batch of bread dough, from which I made sfeehas (triangular meat pies filled with ground lamb, onion, and cream cheese) and some wonderful fresh Syrian bread.
We feasted that night, old friends around the table. I’ve been living on leftovers ever since and trying to remember what’s so all-fired important that I don’t have time to do this more often.