Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Healthy Middle Eastern Fare for Cook The Books: The Language of Baklava

Our second selection for Cook The Books, (the foodie book club, founded by Rachel at The Crispy Cook, Johanna from Food Junkie, Not Junk Food and me), is The Language of Baklava, a foodie memoir by Diana Abu-Jaber. As this month’s host, I got to choose our selection and as much as I love “foodie fiction”, there is something special about foodie memoirs that make them one of my favorite book genres. I especially enjoy memoirs where the author reflects on the food and practices of their culture. I think it is due to my own lack of a strong cultural identity. I am basically “American mutt”, with some German, Swedish, Danish (and who knows what else mixed in), so although I have memories or ties to food from childhood, it is not attached to any one culture (or cultures). The Language of Baklava is about the author’s experiences growing up and struggling to find her own identity between the very different customs and mores of her vibrant, flamboyant Jordanian father and her steady, restrained American mother. As exotic as many of the characters, locations, experiences and food in the book were, it also has the classic ingredients of any coming of age story that we can all relate to; adolescent anxiety and rebellion, crazy family members providing embarrassing moments and a struggle to find one's place in the world.

I find Abu-Jaber to be a wonderful and descriptive story teller, whether writing fiction for some of her other books (Crescent, Arabian Jazz) or as in this book, relating vividly the personal stories that made up her life. There are recipes sprinkled through the book that only enhance the colorful narrative and helped to immerse me in the tale. Even the title of the book, The Language of Baklava, reinforces the idea that food can be it’s own language or way of communicating.

I wanted to cook so many of the recipes in the book and will probably go back and do so later on, but for my Cook The Books entry, I settled on three recipes from the book: “Eat It Now” Shish Kabob, Fattoush: Bread Salad, and a Tahini Sauce, featured in a fish recipe toward the end of the book. With a few changes to lighten things up and accompanied by a Middle Eastern Couscous with Apricot, recipe from Tyler Florence, (multi-tasking here for two events!), it made a lovely and delicious Healthy Mediterranean Platter.

"Eat It Now" Shish Kabob
The Langauage of Baklava, Diana Abu-Jaber
(Serves 6)

4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup red wine
2 tablespoons red vinegar
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried rosemary
2 pounds boneless leg of lamb, cut into small cubes
1 large onion, cut into chunks
1 large tomato, cut into chunks
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Whisk together the oil, wine, vinegar, garlic and spices in a large bowl. Add the meat and stir to coat it thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate overnight; turn occasionally.

Thread the cubes of lamb on skewers, occasionally adding a piece of onion or tomato. Grill over hot coals, turning once. Cook to medium rare and eat while still sizzling.

Fattoush: Bread Salad
The Language of Baklava, Diana Abu-Jaber

1/2 cucumber, peeled and diced
1 1/2 loaves of pita bread, cut into pieces
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 garlic clove, crushed
salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1 tomato, chopped
1/4 cup sliced scallions
2 Tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 Tbsp chopped mint
inner leaves of head of romaine, chopped into chunks

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Sprinkle the cucumber with salt, drain for 30 minutes, and pat dry. On a cookie sheet, bake the pita pieces, shaking occasionally, 18 to 20 minutes, until crisp. In a large bowl, whisk the oil, lemon juice, and garlic with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the bell pepper, tomato, scallions, parsley, mint, cucumber, and pita. Toss the romaine leaves to combine, and serve.

Note/Results: I didn't have to do too much to lighten these recipes up, mainly I cut the olive oil down in both the marinade and the salad. I also used a lean, lamb loin chop for the shish kabob and used whole-wheat pita in the salad. The results? A tender, juicy, flavorful kabob, with a tahini sauce to drizzle on it; delicious on the plate and the leftovers were wonderful the next day, as a sandwich filling in a whole-wheat pita. The salad was bright, tangy and refreshing and the whole-wheat pita crisps added a nice crunch. This recipe might just make it on the regular salad rotation. The tahini sauce (recipe in book), was a nice accompaniment to the lamb and the whole plate went together easily. 

A truly wonderful book, paired with some delicious food!  If you are reading along with us or want to, you still have several days to finish the book and get your dishes posted. The deadline is February 15th and we are getting the help choosing the winning entry from the author herself. For more Cook The Books information check out our website here.   


  1. Hi Deb - I ordered the book weeks ago but it has to ship from the USA and frustratingly hasn't arrived yet. I am undecided about whether to make and post a baklava, and add the review later, or whether I should just bow out this month gracefully?

  2. Awesome post, Deb. I like your book review and the dishes you chose. Fattoush sounds like a wonderful idea. Can't wait for your Cook the Books roundup!

  3. Middle eastern flavors really are some of the best. I think you've convinced me to check out this book!

  4. What a lovely meal, so colorful. That bread salad is particularly appealing.

    My new submission for Souper Sunday is a Split Pea, Carrot and Coconut Soup. Oh it was so good!


  5. What an incredibly gorgeous, healthy, colorful, PERFECT meal, Deb!! The book sounds fantastic, too.

  6. What a wonderful meal! It's a joy to look at! And I bet it was ten times more joyful eating it!

  7. A wonderful meal! Colourful, flavourful and healthy.
    This was a great book with a lot of great recipes - can't wait to cook something up!

  8. I'd love to dive right into this!! Holy cow, does this look ever so good!

  9. Lovely meal... Sounds perfect with the apricot couscous.

  10. Just gorgeous - I adore middle eastern cooking.

  11. I've never tried fattoush, but it sounds healthy and yummy!

  12. That looks so good! I had a wonderful time with this book.

  13. I would give a lot of money to have all that for my dinner tonight! If only you were closer. My brother used to live on Oahu and I have been there twice. It is so beautiful there. And the weather just great. You are so lucky!!!

  14. Deb, your meal looks beautiful, and, I'm guessing, tasted awesome. I really, really loved this book!

  15. Thank you for picking this book - I really enjoyed it. As for your meal, whoever got to eat it sure was lucky!


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