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How the Middle East is Changing Our Diet


Vegetarian recipes inspired by Lebanon


Courtesy of Phaidon. Eggplant and pomegranate salad with toasted pine nuts.

If you haven't yet realized, we are in the midst of a love affair with the Middle East -- in our kitchens, that is. Hummus has colonized the lunchboxes of America; big-city pizza joints have made room for falafel bars; and a run of cookbooks by Israeli-Palestinian chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi have become instant classics.

While Ottolenghi's celebrated restaurants haven't made it across the pond from London, a crop of homegrown imitators has filled the gap nicely. At Bar Bolonat New York's West Village, the menu is full of happy surprises, from a zingy green harissa that enlivens a grilled branzino to a bowl of edamame spiked with cumin. Just save room for dessert: The fried ice cream baklava and halva creme brulee are knockouts, simultaneously familiar and novel.

Bolonat's dishes are designed to be shared family-style, and this philosophy is at the heart of Middle Eastern cuisine, with its bounty of mezes and salads. In the introduction to her latest release, The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook, Salma Hage recalls the communal nature of preparing food in the Lebanese village in which she grew up--stringing together beans to dry, pickling turnips, and making batches of her grandmother's beloved tomato paste. Hage is not vegetarian, but when her son Joe axed meat from his diet, she began adapting favorite recipes to suit his needs. Often she didn't need to--so many classic Middle Eastern dishes are meat-free that the cuisine is a vegetarian's dream.

Hage's secret weapon is Lebanese seven-spice seasoning, a blend you can make at home by mixing ground allspice, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and fenugreek. Make a big batch--it won't go to waste, sprucing up a simple lentil and bean soup, or adding depth to Hage's recipe for stuffed baby eggplants. Indeed, the mighty eggplant is the heart and soul of this book: fried, grilled, broiled, mashed, and showcased in a tasty salad (in which it is oven-roasted and tossed with pomegranate seeds, toasted pine nuts, and baby spinach).

Even the casual cook can learn a few tricks, like adding cardamom to oatmeal, or blending tahini with dates and bananas for a protein-packed smoothie. As Alain Ducasse states in the book's foreword, these recipes are drawn from an ancient tradition while also being incredibly modern. Think of this as the newest, oldest, tastiest trend of the year.

The Recipe: Eggplant and Pomegranate Salad With Toasted Pine Nuts

Meaty eggplant and sweet-and-sour pomegranate make a delicious pair here, with toasted pine nuts offering a finishing crunch.

1. Preheat oven to 400degF. Crush 1 Tbsp. coriander seeds and 1 tsp. cumin seeds with a mortar and pestle and toast them in a dry skillet for a few minutes until fragrant. Put 2 eggplants, peeled and cut into large chunks, in a bowl and toss with 2 Tbsp. olive oil, 2 crushed garlic cloves, and salt and pepper. Sprinkle on the coriander and cumin.

2. Drizzle 1 Tbsp. oil onto a baking sheet. Dip the eggplant lightly in flour. Place it on the baking sheet and roast for 40 minutes, or until chargrilled and slightly crisp. While it roasts, mix and set aside the dressing ingredients: 4 Tbsp. pomegranate juice, 1 tsp. balsamic vinegar, juice of 1/2 lemon, 4 Tbsp. olive oil, and salt and pepper.

3. Once cooled, place the roasted eggplant in a bowl with 1 to 2 Tbsp. of the dressing, and toss. Let stand for 10 minutes so the dressing is absorbed while you lightly toast 2/3 cup (100 g) pine nuts in a skillet with 2 tsp. of oil. Add 1 bunch parsley leaves, coarsely chopped; a handful of baby spinach leaves, chopped; and a handful of pomegranate seeds to the eggplant. Toss together well. Sprinkle on the toasted pine nuts and serve with the remaining dressing.

Serves 4.

Adapted from The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook by Salma Hage (Phaidon)

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