Sometimes simple moments make the best memories and some of my favorites have been enjoying Lebanese meals in Marcelle’s kitchen.
Each year when sunshine fills the sky bringing longer days in the early summer it is also a perfect time to enjoy hours of enjoyable conversation at the table filling just picked tender grape leaves from Marcelle’s grape vines and stuffing them with her fresh tabouli accompanied with a glass of Arak, or something similar tasting to the Lebanese licorice flavored aperitif. This year the weather was not kind to Marcelle’s grape vines but fortunately, it is also a special time to enjoy another Lebanese favorite, Fattoush, fresh greens with vegetables, herbs, and pieces of toasted pita bread salad enjoyed really any time of the year but among Lebanese, most popular in the warmer months.
The first time I had Fattoush was at Marcelle’s fabulously fun celebration when she became an American citizen over fifteen years ago. The event included a broad selection of meticulously prepared Lebanese specialties, including Fattoush. Topping off the evening was Marcel, castanets in place, teaching the group of women from all over the world the art of belly dancing. Though the food was much better quality than the dancing guests, still what could be more fun than enjoying wonderful food together with music, dance and laughter among friends?
In the summer months Fattoush does take advantage of ingredients available fresh from one’s garden, particularly tomatoes, mint, and parsley. The torn toasted pieces of pita bread in the salad, though historically were a way to use up stale pita bread, also serve as a way to add a little more substance to the salad making a large bowl of Fattoush filling enough as a summer meal. In Lebanon, alongside perhaps a roasted chicken or kabobs, or beef or kafta kabobs, Fattoush is the side dish.
Raised in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, Marcelle, the third of eight children always loved spending a lot of time in the kitchen observing her mother and grandmother prepare food and helping them. Meals were prepared simply with a focus on ingredient quality at the local shops all within walking distance. Food purchased daily in the warmer months required someone in the family would see to the daily market supplies, one of Marcelle’s chores as she got older. Recipes in Marcelle’s home in Lebanon were prepared daily to taste and not written and so Marcelle continues to make her Lebanese food through taste and hands on experience. She also shares the preparation of the traditional Lebanese specialties with her daughter, Mary, using this method.
Today, Marcelle and I carefully measured each of the ingredients to provide a very large bowl of Fattoush for the recipe provided below. In between measuring Marcelle and I chatted on some of her food experiences as a child in Lebanon where the key known products of her region were grapes, watermelon, and the Lebanese cucumber that she describes as similar to the very small thin, seedless, Kirby cucumber. Living in a community where grapes were commonly grown, Marcelle’s father, worked for a corporation, and also owned land that supplied grapes in cooperative type style. Workers were paid to tend the grapes and seasonally a supplier would come in to purchase the grapes and see to his workers harvesting and boxing them in shapely bunches for transport. Alternatively, there were also neighbors in the community that saw to their own grape tending and care until harvest time.
Marcelle explained that the snow was plentiful during the winter months in Lebanon so they could not always get to the store, fresh lettuce was not always readily available so that is why Fattoush is more commonly served in warmer months. The fall in Lebanon shares similarities with many parts of the world where people stock their supplies for the winter months ahead. As essentials based on location and cuisines vary, the Lebanese home would stock many containers of lentils, chickpeas, pickling eggplant and cucumber, along with preparing a broad range of jams from grapes, figs, and apricots. Onions and garlic was purchased in volume and stored in a cool spot. Olives are so essential with the Lebanese meal, particularly enjoyed at breakfast with bread and home-made cheeses, that prior to winter, Marcelle’s father would find out the best place to go annually and the olive stock would fill two 3 feet high jugs separately, one green, one black. “Besides breakfast, olives are also eaten as appetizers in Lebanon and many Lebanese people love their olives so much that they enjoy having two or three olive pieces with bread to complete their meal.” Marcelle said.
“Bulgur was not sold as ready to cook when I was little so the women had to buy the actual whole wheat kernels, boil and dry them, where they would then be taken to a special place in town for processing into the necessary sizes.” She said, “There were 3 sizes, fine, medium and big. The fine was used for tabouli, the medium for kibbeh, and the big size was to cook with.” Given that time consumer, if not for the invention of processed bulgur I might have had a much longer wait then just next year for the annual fresh picked grape leaves from Marcelle’s vines and her homemade tabouli! Still, I would have my wonderfully fresh tasting Fattoush!
- 1 large head romaine lettuce, torn into bite size pieces
- 3 cups chopped fresh mint
- 3 cups chopped fresh parsley
- 1 bunch chopped scallions
- 3 cups kirby cucumber or any long thin seedless cucumber, sliced
- 1/2 teaspoon allspice
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 lemons, fresh juiced
- 8 medium sized tomatoes, chopped
- 2 pita bread slices, separate each slice into 2 pieces, toasted and broken into bite size pieces
- salt to taste, beginning at 1 full teaspoon salt and more added as needed
- pepper to taste, begin with 1/2 teaspoon and add more as desired
- 1/8 cup red wine vinegar
- 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- In a very large bowl combine romaine, mint, parsley, cucumber, scallions and garlic. Sprinkle in allspice, salt, and pepper, toss ingredients with romaine mixture, pour in lemon juice, toss again. About fifteen minutes before serving, drain chopped tomatoes of any excess liquid and toss in. Pour in vinegar then extra virgin olive oil tossing throughout again. Drop in bite size pieces of toasted pita bread. Let salad sit for five minutes, stir, taste, check seasonings, vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper adjusting to taste. Let Fattoush finish at room temperature for at least fifteen to twenty minutes for all of the flavors to absorb together.