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Home > Life & Culture > Cuisine
A tale of two Easters
Karola Saekel, San Francisco Chronicle, Apr 4, 2007

samir-nassar-inset.jpg
Palestinian-American businessman Samir Nassar.
Like Christians worldwide, the Nassar family is preparing for Easter this week. And like most of their neighbors, this year they will celebrate only once.

Generally, the family marks the feast of the resurrection of Christ twice: Once for Samir Nassar, who is of the Eastern Orthodox faith, and once for his wife, Georgette, a Catholic. The two celebrations, with dates anchored in ancient customs tied to the lunar calendar, can be as much as six weeks apart. This year, they fall on the same date: April 8.

And the food traditions, many going back to ancient times, are the same for both groups of Palestinian Christians, no matter the date of the observance.

Actually, the family still had two Easter feasts this year: They did a demonstration dinner a couple of weeks ago at their Hercules home to show us what a typical Palestinian Christian Easter meal looks and tastes like. As they will this Sunday, the whole family worked together in the well-equipped kitchen before sitting down to a feast that stretched over a couple of hours.

Juju, as Georgette Nassar is called, has her men well trained. While her husband (Sam to his American friends) chops, sons Samer and Suheil (Soosh) fetch platters, peel cucumbers or watch over food simmering on the stove or baking in the ovens.

Though father and sons studied a variety of subjects, they all ended up in the food business in one way or another. The young men, both in their 20s and UC Berkeley graduates, live together in the East Bay.

Samer operates Grub-n-Go, a popular downtown Berkeley sandwich shop; his brother manages a deli in Walnut Creek, and the parents' Brewed Awakening coffeehouse has been a fixture just north of the UC campus for 20 years.

"Food and service -- that's what Palestinians here do," Sam Nassar says with a grin.

Food certainly is a focal point, and the traditions of the table are one way for Palestinians in the diaspora to preserve the connection to their ancient culture, the Nassars believe.

The family's togetherness in the kitchen and at the table is not reserved for holidays. The two sons come for dinner at least twice a week, their filial loyalty no doubt aided by their appreciation of their parents' cooking, which dovetails with modern American trends. Much of the family's food is local and seasonal; they grow it in their own backyard.

The hot sauce that seasons many Palestinian dishes comes from peppers grown in a protected spot by the side of the house. The garden also provides home-grown tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, squash and more -- Soosh pulled neat, flat packages from the freezer to show off the grape leaves from their own arbor that are the basis of stuffed grape leaves year-round.

Many of the fruit trees and vegetables are grown from seeds brought from the place Sam and Juju Nassar call home. They were both born and raised in Bethlehem and were married in the ancient Church of the Nativity there.

Unlike some immigrants who have a hard time duplicating their traditional meals in the United States, the Nassars say they can find all the needed ingredients here, generally in mainstream groceries.

A few, such as sumac and the binding/sweetening agent, gum Arabic (also called mastic) require a trip to stores specializing in Middle Eastern or Greek foods (such as Haig's on Clement Street in San Francisco). And some come directly "from home" -- especially arak, the potent liquor that's a favorite digestif in the Middle East.

Olive oil is a staple, although the Palestinian kitchen also makes use of samna, a form of clarified butter similar to ghee that adds richness to some dishes. It is not used sparingly. As Sam Nassar puts it, there has to be enough "to stay on your mustache."

The trial Easter meal followed Middle Eastern custom, with no clear delineation between courses. Except for dessert, everything is brought to the table simultaneously, so diners can set their own pace and pattern as platters pass from hand to hand with frequent encouragements: "Have a little more."

First on the table are bowls of hummus. The Nassars add lightly fried pine nuts to the lemony, garlicky garbanzo spread for a toothsome, crunchy contrast.

Two yeast dough-based dishes also might be considered starters: fatayer, which are turnovers filled with lemon-scented spinach; and sfiha, a close relative of pizza. At the Nassar house, the chewy crust is topped with finely minced cooked lamb seasoned with onion, garlic, jalapenos and parsley, moistened with tahini and tomato sauce.

Lamb in a coarser grind also gives substance to hashweh, a rice dish seasoned with allspice and again highlighted with pine nuts.

The main attraction is mousakhan, sumac-scented game hens roasted to a reddish brown and placed atop Arabic pocket bread, or pita, with more sumac and plenty of sauteed onions. Laban bi khiar -- mint and cucumber salad in a yogurt dressing scented with garlic -- offers a cooling contrast.

To conclude the feast, there are kaak bi ajwa, date-filled cookies in the shape of wreaths. Sam Nassar says some Palestinian bakers now make them any time of year, but his family likes the tradition of baking and eating them only at Easter. The shape of the cookie is symbolic of the crown of thorns that, according to Christian tradition, was put on Jesus' head in his final hours.

At the trial run for the feast, there were seven of us at the table. On Easter Sunday, there will be many more. Juju and Sam Nassar were both reared in large families, and between the two of them have about 50 relatives in the Bay Area.

It's a safe bet that not only will everybody invited to the Easter feast eat their fill, but also be urged to carry some food home. Hospitality and generosity are Palestinian hallmarks, says Sam Nassar. "If we have to feed three, we cook for 20."

RECIPES:

Roasted Game Hens on Sumac-Onion Bread (Mousakhan)


Serves 6

INGREDIENTS:

3 game hens, cut in halves

1 cup olive oil

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

4 tablespoons ground sumac

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 teaspoon paprika

3 large onions, chopped

3/4 cup pine nuts

6 rounds thick pita bread

(such as the Middle Eastern brand Aladdin)

INSTRUCTIONS:

Instructions: Preheat the oven to 350.

Rub the hens with 1/2 cup of the olive oil and the lemon juice. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the sumac, salt and pepper to taste, and the paprika. Cover with foil and place in a baking pan with 1/2 cup of water. Bake for 45 minutes, then uncover the pan and turn the heat to broil. Broil for 10 minutes, until the hens are browned.

Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a skillet, then add the onions, and the remaining 2 tablespoons sumac. Season with salt and pepper. Saute until the onions are soft.

Heat the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil in a skillet and brown the pine nuts in it. Using a slotted spoon, remove the pine nuts and set on paper towels to drain.

Lightly grease 2 baking sheets.

Remove the hens from the baking pan and set aside. Dip the pita into the broth in the pan and arrange in a single layer on the baking sheets, 3 per sheet. Place a layer of the onion mixture on each pita. Transfer the cooked hens to the top of the pitas. Top with more onion mixture. Place under the broiler and broil for 5-8 minutes, until the bread is crispy.

Sprinkle the hens with the pine nuts and serve. Skim the fat from the juices, then pour into a gravy boat and pass at the table.

Per serving: 765 calories, 49 g protein, 42 g carbohydrate, 45 g fat (9 g saturated), 125 mg cholesterol, 772 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.

Palestinian Hummus

Serves 6

This traditional Palestinian dish can be served for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even as a snack with pita bread.

INGREDIENTS:

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas

1/3 cup tahini

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice or to taste

1 clove garlic, or to taste

1/2 jalapeno pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup pine nuts

Paprika, for garnish (optional)

Chopped parsley, for garnish (optional)

INSTRUCTIONS:

Instructions: Drain the chickpeas, reserving 1/4 cup of the liquid. Place the chickpeas with the tahini, lemon juice, garlic, jalapeno pepper and salt in a food processor and blend until smooth. If the hummus is too thick, add some of the reserved chickpea liquid until it reaches the desired consistency.

Melt the butter in a skillet and brown the pine nuts in it.

Place the hummus in the center of a large flat plate and spread it toward the edges with a spoon. Sprinkle the buttery pine nuts on top. If desired, garnish the edges with dashes of paprika and chopped parsley.

Serve with pita bread.

Per serving: 215 calories, 7 g protein, 15 g carbohydrate, 16 g fat (4 g saturated), 10 mg cholesterol, 366 mg sodium, 5 g fiber.

Mint & Cucumber Yogurt Salad (Laban bi Khiar)

Serves 6

INGREDIENTS:

2 cucumbers, peeled and cubed

16 ounces plain yogurt

1 teaspoon dried mint flakes

1 small garlic clove, finely minced

Salt to taste

INSTRUCTIONS:

Instructions: Put the cucumbers in a mixing bowl. Add the yogurt, mint flakes and garlic. Season with salt and mix thoroughly. Refrigerate until chilled before serving.

Per serving: 60 g calories, 4 g protein, 6 g carbohydrate, 3 g fat (2 g saturated), 10 mg cholesterol, 38 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.

Easter Cookies with Dates (Kaak bi Ajwa)

Makes 30-35 cookies

Traditionally, these cookies are made only during the Easter holiday. The date cookie, in its circular shape, represents the crown of thorns that was placed on Christ's head.

INGREDIENTS:

The Dough

1 cup unsalted butter

3 cups semolina

2 teaspoons yeast

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon powered gum arabic (see Note)

Pinch mahlab (optional, see Note)

The Filling

2 pounds pitted dates, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Powdered sugar

INSTRUCTIONS:

To prepare the dough: Melt the butter and let it cool to room temperature. Add to the semolina and mix thoroughly. Cover and leave at room temperature overnight.

Mix together 1/2 cup warm water, yeast and sugar in a measuring cup. Cover and set aside in a warm place for about 5 minutes.

Add yeast mixture to semolina, along with nutmeg, gum arabic, optional mahlab and 1/2 cup room-temperature water. Knead by hand until thoroughly mixed.

To prepare the filling: Mix dates with olive oil and cinnamon. Form date mixture into 1 1/2-inch balls and roll into 4-inch logs.

To assemble: Position a rack in middle of oven. Preheat oven to 350. Grease 2 cookie sheets.

Roll dough into 1 1/2-inch balls, then roll into 4-inch logs. Flatten dough with your fingers and place a date strip in the center. Crimp edges of dough to seal date mixture inside. Shape dough into a ring and crimp ends together. Using a fork or wooden skewer, indent surface of cookie, taking care not to puncture dough.

Bake for 12 minutes. Remove from oven and cool for a few minutes on the baking sheet before transferring to racks to cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar.

Note: Mahlab and gum arabic are available at Middle Eastern stores.

Per cookie: 180 calories, 2 g protein, 31 g carbohydrate, 6 g fat (3 g saturated), 14 mg cholesterol, 3 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.

Rice with Minced Lamb

Serves 6

Georgette Nassar uses converted rice in this dish. If you want to substitute regular long-grain rice, decrease amount of water by 1/4 cup.

INGREDIENTS:

1/4 cup + 4 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 pounds coarsely ground lamb

2 cups converted rice (such as Uncle Ben's)

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

3/4 teaspoon allspice

1 cup pine nuts

INSTRUCTIONS:

Instructions: Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a 4-quart pot. Add the lamb and saute until browned. Drain. Add the rice, salt, pepper and allspice. Add 3 cups water and stir to mix well. Cover the pot and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 25-30 minutes, until the rice mixture is tender and fluffy.

Heat the remaining 4 tablespoons oil in a skillet. Add the pine nuts and saute until they turn golden brown.

To serve, spoon the rice into a serving dish. Sprinkle the pine nuts over the top, including any oil left in the pan, if desired.

Per serving: 490 calories, 28 g protein, 37 g carbohydrate, 28 g fat (9 g saturated), 75 mg cholesterol, 790 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.


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