Menu of the Week: Culinary Inspirations from the Middle East

Clockwise from top center: Brown Rice-Cabbage-Carrot Pilaf, Steamed Cauliflower with Kalamata Olive Dressing, Butternut Squash "Moussaka," Spring Greens Salad with Heirloom Tomatoes and Cucumber

Although the countries of  the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East have a diversity of languages, religion and culture, there are many commonalities when it comes to cuisine. Lamb, for those who eat meat, is typical of the region. Lemons and oranges provide seasoning as do spices such as cinnamon, coriander, cumin and allspice. Favored herbs are mint, parsley and oregano, while sesame seeds, almonds and walnuts appear in savory dishes as well as sweet.  Rice and wheat are the predominant grains, lentils, favas and chick peas the favored beans.  Eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and spinach and other greens appear again and again. And in many of the countries, olives and olive oil are essential. So, while this menu cannot be pinned to any particular country, it’s definitely inspired by this history-rich region.  In addition to the main course pictured above, the meal began with Creamy Sweet and Tart Chick Pea Soup.

Few soups are as satisfying, I think, as those based on the meaty and tasty chick pea.  They do take time to cook, but are well worth it. In addition to the chick peas, we added sautéed onions, carrots and celery. Sweetness and creaminess came from boiled and puréed sweet potatoes and copious amount of rice miso. For even more creaminess, we puréed some of the chick peas. We further seasoned the soup with salt, pepper, umeboshi vinegar and added lemon juice, for a slight tartness. Freshly chopped parsley was both mixed in and added as a garnish.

The main course featured a Butternut Squash “Moussaka,” which I put in quotation marks because this moussaka strays rather far from the norm. While this Greek dish typically calls for roasted or grilled eggplant, ground lamb, a tomato sauce flavored with cinnamon, topped with a white sauce enriched with eggs and cheese, I based mine on butternut squash which we sliced, blanched and seasoned with cumin, cinnamon and olive oil. As a time saver, I used Trader Joe’s Organic Marinara Sauce, customized with onions, garlic, cinnamon and fresh parsley.  We layered the tomato sauce first, then the butternut squash and topped it all with a white sauce made with soy and rice milks and thickened with brown rice flour and puréed tofu. Our moussaka went into a 400º F oven for an hour.

Our Brown Rice-Cabbage-Carrot Pilaf we made with Lundberg’s organic long grain brown rice cooked as usual, with slowly sauteéd, finely sliced cabbage and grated carrots added before serving.  The cabbage and carrots we seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper, soy sauce and umeboshi vinegar.

For the Steamed Cauliflower with Kalamata Dressing, we blanched the cauliflower and tossed it, while still warm, with a dressing of pitted, sliced Greek kalamata olives, olive oil, lemon juice, umeboshi vinegar, mirin and salt and pepper. Chopped cilantro served as a garnish.

The Mixed Spring Greens Salad with Heirloom Tomatoes and Cucumber, was pretty much just that, with a vinaigrette dressing similar to the one you will find on this page.

My Semolina “Honey” Cake, was an experiment, I have to confess.  It turned out more like bars, but got good reviews.  I will try to post the recipe soon, but essentially it consisted of a simple cake made with semolina, unbleached white and whole wheat pastry flours, roasted, chopped almonds and sweetened with maple syrup.  I poured a “honey” sauce made with brown rice syrup, barley malt syrup and lemon juice over the cake while it was still warm. Finally, I scattered toasted, sliced almonds on the top. We accompanied all this with Mint Tea, a traditional beverage in the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean region.

James Holloway and I cooked this meal in Palo Alto, last night, September 13th, 2010. For information on how to attend our weekly vegetarian dinners, click here.


One response

  1. Thank you Chefs Gary and James for creating this delicious and delectable vegan dinner! From the soup to the dessert, this meal was ahearty, healthy and very satisfying autumn meal. The use of the butternut squash in the moussaka was most creative! The dessert is now a favorite, and was delicious with the mint tea! I look forward to receiving the recipe on the blog. Thank you for modeling gourmet vegan cooking using good healthy ingredients!

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