Sep 132013

Ramen Burger from

I don’t like standing in lines. Not for a premiere movie tickets, not for the newest techie gadget, not for the sales on Friday after Thanksgiving. (Having to spend hours away from classes while waiting in never-ending lines, depending on mercy of the office harpies at the University of Belgrade just to be issued a monthly bus pass clearly does not count. That I endured this at the age before smart phones were invented, makes the experience even more traumatic).

So when I learned that Keizo Shimamoto would be serving 500 ramen burgers last Saturday at 11:00 am at Mitsuwa Market, a Japanese  chain store in my neighboring Torrance, I deliberately failed to set the alarm. Yes, I was determined to go, as I was curious about the concept, but I knew that I am not that hard-core to camp in front of a store for a food item, no matter how highly recommended and hyped.

Ramen Burger lines from

The recovering journalist in me woke up and nudged me to get up just in time to make it close to the end of the line at 10:30. I felt empowered by finding a decent parking place and exercised my patience for a while, relieved when more and more people queued up behind me. But when they announced that I probably would not get to be the one of the chosen 500 to sample the $8.00 ramen burger, along with a few dozen of my crestfallen neighbors who stood in line behind the coveted corner, I had to rethink my strategy.

I stayed in place for a few minutes, thinking that there might be some vegetarians ahead who might forfeit their burgers. The logic prevailed, though, and I decided to head to the store and be the journalist, experiencing the event vicariously and taking testimonies, resigned that it was not in my cards that day to taste the trendy fusion burger.

Ramen Burger assembly line from

I positioned myself in front of the stall hosting Ramen Burger crew and started taking photos of busy hands assembling the burgers, minutes before the hungry hordes were allowed to enter. Ramen noodles, already cooked and shaped into sturdy disks, were placed onto a griddle until golden brown and crispy. A charbroiled hamburger patty fit perfectly on top of one of the rounds, followed by a secret shoyu sauce, a few leaves of arugula, chopped scallions, and another ramen round. It was neatly folded in a pleated paper wrapper constructed specifically to prevent the juices and sauce from seeping out.

Ramen Burger experience from

I happened to be at the right place and the right time to see Keizo Shimamoto, the guy behind the the ramen burger fame, pass one of the burgers to his mother, who declared that she had never tasted one of her son’s inventions before. Even better, I stood next to the CBS News cameraman who passed his burger to me, as he was on a diet. I figured it was research combined with a good deed and bit into it.

I expected the ramen bun to fall apart at the first attack, but it was surprisingly sturdy. According to Keizo, this is not your usual instant ramen, but rather custom made by respectable Sun Noodle company in New Jersey. It took me much longer to finish this burger, and it kept me full for quite some time. It was an unusual combination of flavors and textures, which is typical for fusion cooking, and while I still prefer a classic hamburger, I would not mind breaking the routine with this umami-rich newest food sensation.

Keizo Shimamoto from

Keizo’s story is an inspiring one. Born, raised, and educated in southern California, he entered the work force as a computer programmer, only to depart to Japan to study ramen, in pursuit of his dream. After four years he returned with an idea of a ramen burger which combines his two culinary loves, and almost overnight became a frenzied success. It seems that things are moving incredibly fast for this one-man enterprise, as the demands are clearly going through the roof. He is riding the wave with a smile, knowing that all his work has finally paid off and his dream became a reality. He and his ramen burger are here to stay, and I would not be surprised to see Keizo more frequently back on the West coast.

A few hundred photos and a full belly later, I slowly made my way out of the store, where the line was shorter, but still winding around a couple of corners. Keizo’s ramen burger was satisfying, but did not convince me that anything is worth waiting in line for hours in midday southern California sun.


Jun 242013


Huntington Beach Chili and Salsa from

Last Saturday morning, I grabbed my camera and shades, and drove south on PCH towards Huntington Beach and their 6th Annual Chili and Salsa cook-off. With the windows down, the wind tussling my hair, infinite blue sky above, and the Pacific on my right, I had a real Cinderella moment: Freida’s old hunter-green Bonneville with peeling paint, rusty rims, dents, and scratches became in my mind a sleek, red, and most definitely Italian convertible, and every movie I ever saw that featured southern California coast started playing in the background.

Huntington Beach Chili and Salsa from

Not a Lamborghini, but I’ll take it!

Huntington Beach Chili and Salsa from

Look at all those beautiful chiles from my friends at Melissa’s Produce!

I like the reckless and adventurous feel of Huntington Beach, but I always seem to just past through it on my way somewhere else. And every time I promise myself that I will allot at least a day to roam around this town that keeps on fascinating me. So Saturday June 15th I spent a few hours exploring downtown area where the annual street fair is held.

Huntington Beach Chili and Salsa from

Redhot Redneck salsa from Killarney’s was wickedly good.

Main Street was closed to the traffic and filled with booths selling street fair food, t-shirts, custom jewelry, candles, Oriental art, home-made preserves, purses, and even beach cruiser bikes. There was a stage on each end with bands playing one after the other throughout the afternoon. A side street held an enormous blow-up play area for the kids and several information booths placed along the Main Street offered details about the fair, parking, downtown events, and Chili and Salsa tasting.

Huntington Beach Chili and Salsa from

I loved this chili! Lots of cumin and cilantro.

Huntington Beach Chili and Salsa from

Mariachi in front of Aloha Grill booth

I strolled in the rhythm of the music, took pictures, talked to the vendors, spun the wheel at a couple of booths (I won a wine bag from the OC Fair booth:) and bought two leather hippie bracelets for my teens. I tasted a lot of chili and a lot of salsa, and my big water bottle proved to be my best friend.

Huntington Beach Chili and Salsa from

Huntington Beach Chili and Salsa from

The winners of the 6th annual Chili and Salsa Tasting, Chili Ahumada from Shenanigans

It felt good just to be outside in the warm California sunshine, stealing a few worry-free hours from a really busy week. I only regretted not bringing my girls along. But the fun in Huntington Beach does not end with this event; the community has planned many happenings throughout the summer, and next time I head south on PCH for Surf City Nights on Tuesdays, my girls are coming with me. Blow-up slides and funnel cakes for them, farmers market for me, loud singing in the car with windows down for all three of us – summer just got a whole lot better!

Jun 072013

graybeh from

Ever since I started elementary school, my family spent two weeks of winter break in the mountains, where we had an adorable, miniature, and very rustic cabin. Everything we needed, we had to pack into the trunk of Father’s Fiat 1300; there were no stores and the narrow, mountain road was often buried under the enormous snow drifts, which made it impossible for anyone to navigate for days.

The week before our departure, Mother and Njanja would rarely leave the kitchen, preparing enough food to sustain us and guests for the fortnight. The refrigerator and pantry shelves slowly filled up with enameled pots of beans, sarma*, cabbage with pork, and goulash, trays of pastries, rolls, and cookies, and bowls of semi-prepared side dishes.

Graybeh from

Father would pack them tightly around snow tires, along with packages of frozen meat, wooden crates of vegetables and fruit, sacks of pantry staples, and casks of red wine. Five of us would remain pretty much immobile during the three to four hour trip to the cabin, Mother and the three of us buried under the canvas bags and baskets containing the rest of the supplies, Father intensely focused on the road conditions. Filled with excitement and sense of adventure, we never complained, even after we had to help unload the car and take the provisions in the house down a path Father shoveled for us moments before.

He would immediately get to work defrosting the pipes and building fire in the fireplace. It took a long time to warm up the foot-thick stone walls and we sat on the couch with our full winter attire on, shivering, but awaiting with anticipation the first offering: a cup of hot tea and a plate of cookies. Mother would empty a bottle of water she filled at home into a teapot, turn on a small two-burner gas stove, and get the tea steeping, while unwrapping gurabije, not too sweet, but crispy butter cookies topped with chopped nutsshe and Njanja prepared ahead.

Graybeh from

The balls of dough are about 1 inch in diameter

Never did those cookies taste better than on those frigid early afternoons, when we dared take the gloves off only to dunk a piece in our tea. They dissolved on our tongues, their buttery flavor chased by the fragrant aroma of hibiscus and wild flowers, bringing comfort, and temporarily easing hunger caused by the unrelenting mountain air. The tea would warm our hands just when the fireplace came to life, and we would finish the last bites huddled together in front of fire.

I have never even contemplated making gurabije here in the New World, as for me they are inextricably tied to those long-gone winters and our beloved small cabin that is not there any more. But the memories flooded me when I opened Jerusalem: A Cookbook,  by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, looking for a dessert to make for our monthly virtual club started by my friend Beth of OMG!Yummy. There on page 260 was a recipe for Ghraybeh, simple butter cookies topped by pistachios. I knew that I had to make them right here in my kitchen, even though southern California comes in contact with snow and ice only via Hollywood.

Graybeh from

I am sure that graybeh and gurabije have a common ancestor somewhere in the Middle East and that the cookie reached the Balkans carried in fond memories of many Ottoman Turks who occupied the area for several centuries. Unlike Njanja’s version, it asks for orange blossom and rose petal waters. I am lucky that I live near two Persian grocery stores and finding those, to me, elusive and exotic ingredients does not pose a problem.

Njanja used various cookie cutters to shape gurabije; in this recipe, the small balls of dough are flattened by hands which gives them more old-fashioned, rustic look. There is no egg-white wash, nor chopped nuts on top, rather a solitary shelled pistachio in the center of the cookie. They baked to slightly golden color and accompanied by a cup of strong tea, they were satisfying and comforting, albeit lacking the tantalizing promise of adventure the cookies of my childhood miraculously possessed.

Jerusalem: A Cookbook is a treasure filled with recipes that have the power to instantaneously whisk you away to those enchanted, ancient lands. One day soon I hope to walk the streets of Jerusalem and experience a new adventure. In the meantime, I am filling my wandering soul with promises just by flipping page after page. Why don’t you join me in Tasting Jerusalem?

*Sarma is a Balkan take on dolma; it features sauerkraut leaves stuffed with ground meat and rice).

graybeh from

Mar 222013

When I was a child, recycling had more to do with saving money than protecting the environment. Mother thoroughly washed every single glass jar and stored it in the pantry to be reused for preserves. We returned the glass bottles that held milk and yogurt to the small neighborhood grocery store knowing they would be cleaned and used again.

As a grade school project a few times a year we competed in collecting the newspapers around the neighborhood. We bound the bundles with rope and took them to a collection place where they were weighed and priced. The money we earned was applied to fund field trips for the students whose parents could not afford them.

And of course, you could not buy a case of beer if you did not bring back a case filled with the empty beer bottles. Not that it concerned us in the slightest at the time.

Some of my most horrid memories as a young teen stem back to the days when Father led us on trash-collecting expeditions on Saturdays when he was not on call in the hospital. Most of our friends enjoyed leasurely weekend moments watching TV, goofing around with their siblings, or running after a soccer ball in a near-by field. Not us. Equipped with plastic grocery bags, we’d follow Father around the building and picked up discarded bottles, plastic bags, and various paper trash that miraculously emerged during the night. He thought we were setting an example. We were mortified, but had no other choice but to follow him around and do his bidding.

Throughout the years, I became disillusioned with the majority of the populace, their utter disregard for the environment and the inability to see beyond the next moment. When the snow melted in March and the ugly trash appeared along the banks of the rivers, I strongly supported my Father’s idea of steep littering fines. And when the pristine meadows became the depository of post-picnic garbage on May Day, my heart ached for the wounded nature.

We are in southern California now and Father’s OCD beautifully coincided with his convictions and the state laws concerning garbage and recycling. He meticulously separated our trash, making sure that nothing gets lost or misplaced, dragged the cans to the curb, and watched in amazement as the huge recycling trucks pulled up and giant claws grabbed the cans to empty them. He swore under his breath a few times remarking on the unwillingness of people to separate their garbage in Serbia even though the city governments gave away free differently colored plastic cans to all its citizens. “Hit them in the wallet and they’ll remember!”, was his lamenting cry.

I don’t take my girls around the neighborhood to collect trash, but I have instilled in them the respect for nature that surrounds us. They dutifully fill out the three paper bags that hold different categories of garbage and help me empty the bags of recyclable bottles in the recycling center. They keep the money and buy treats as a reward for good citizenship. We line our trash cans with grocery store plastic bags from the ever-dwindling pile and place our groceries in the big, colorful, canvas bags.

The other day I saw one of those bags with the writing: I used to be a water bottle; the woman who carried it was walking rather quickly and I had no time to pry more details, but I was intrigued. It is admirable to know that there are so many products that can be reused and recycled, but it is remarkable to actually see the results of recycling and hold such a product in your hand.

Arrowhead Water is running a campaign Recycling Is a Beautiful Thing in California, to celebrate the emergence of their new ReBorn Bottle, made with 50% recycled plastic. It made me smile as I read about their company policies and efforts to the environment trash-free and beautiful. They are committed to preserving mountain springs which are the sustainable source of the water they use. Their facilities are LEED certified and they use wind turbines for renewable energy. They are making it their priority to encourage the recycling and educate the people about various approaches and ways plastic can be re-purposed, again and again, with no end. The more plastic bottles get recycled, the more high-quality plastic can be given another life and turned into everyday products.

This is what Arrowhead Water has to say about their new campaign:

“Recycled plastic is simply a better source of plastic. It’s part of Arrowhead’s ongoing commitment to preserving our natural springs, and ensures that every bit of Arrowhead, both inside and out, is truly Born Better. Better IS the new ReBorn Bottle, “ proof recycling works.”

To launch their campaign and encourage recycling, the company made a short video “Recycling Is a Beautiful Thing” and uploaded it to their Facebook page. There are several other videos demonstrating their efforts and initiative about the recycling and commitment to preserve Mother Nature that so generously gives us its resources.

My Father went back to Serbia a few weeks ago and I am convinced that he will at least try to share his experiences and motivate his neighbors to pay more respect to the environment and make greater efforts in recycling. As for his part, he lines the shelves of his cellar with used plastic 1-liter water bottles filled to the brim with his homemade grappa and slivovitz, committed not to waste and doubting of the recycling views of the city officials.

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Arrowhead Waters and I am delighted to be a part of their campaign to promote and encourage recycling and preserving of our natural resources.

Mar 192013


Organic Juice Greens from Melissa's

I used to dread seeing the innocent-looking USPS van parked on the street, knowing that it would bring me only hours of misery, anguish and worry. But a few months ago, I bid farewell to that life and moved on, not even once looking back to the past. I chat with my mailman now without fear, as the worst part of his usual daily delivery is a bunch of useless ads. There are no boogie-men hidden in the mail box waiting to ambush me and the sight of the van parked in front of the neighbors’ house makes me feel comfortable and secure, rather than afraid.

A few days ago, the mailman delivered a $10.00 of card for Victoria’s Secret, a free trial-size bottle of Tide, a takeout menu for a new Thai place, and a brown box from Melissa’s Produce. This being my birthday week, I was elated, and could not run fast enough inside to see what was hidden within the carboard walls. Yes, recieving food and food-related stuff in the mail makes me ecstatic! And this humble-looking package delivered a genuine treasure: several pounds of fresh, organic, seasonal produce, cleaned and ready to use.

When I was in third grade, we went on a field trip to a near-by chocolate and candy factory. I still remember the excitement, or rather frenzy, I felt upon entering room after spacious room with conveyor belts carrying a never-ending river of my favorite snacks. That’s pretty much how I felt as I emptied the produce box in my kitchen: rainbow chard, kale, green leaf lettuce, parsley, celery, collard greens, beets with greens attached, a head of garlic, a ginger root, apples – I thought I was in heaven.

As I later learned, my Organic Green Juice Box is just one of several different types available from Melissa’s Produce. Each box contains seven to eleven pounds of straight-from-the-farm, fresh, organic, nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables in varying combinations. and quantities. You can subscribe to have the boxes delivered right at your doorstep weekly, bi-weekly, monthly or as needed for only $25.00 per box.

I am not the only geek who gets excited over food, and I know how much joy these boxes would elicit as gifts, even though I would have to exclude all my friends who do not live between Santa Barbara and San Diego, as the produce is perishable and therefore not available for shipping outside Southern California.

I have to admit that I have not used a single item I received in the box to make a juice; I don’t own a juicer, and even though I slave for about thirty minutes every day to extract the essence of Valencia oranges that grow in our back yard, I cannot imagine grinding the greens in my mortar or subjecting them to the ignominy of being chewed up by a blender. I am closely monitoring Craigslist posts for a nice, used juicer that might induce me to start my day with a glass full of green froth, but in the meantime, Melissa’s organic greens were put to good use:

I made a cream soup with celery, and a phyllo dough strudel with chard and beet greens; I stuffed collard greens with ground beef and onions, turned parsley and kale into pesto, roasted beets for a simple garlicky side dish, and packed the apples into the girls’ lunch sacks. I am toying with the idea of making my own pickled ginger as my daughters love eating it when we go out for sushi. And besides using the crispy lettuce leaves for BLTs, I just might make a lettuce soup with leftovers.

My mailman is pretty busy delivering a smile to my face a few times a week. And one of the Organic Boxes from Melissa’s Produce will bring a smile to many faces, even if they are not obsessed with food as much as I am. As for me, I am relieved that I don ‘t have to hide in the corner and imagine the horrors that lurk inside the mail box. Instead of dreading it, I look forward to raising the flap and browsing, announcing that all is good with the world.

Organic Green Juice Box - Southern California Delivery

Organic Green Juice Box – the official photo by Melissa’s

Disclosure: I received a beautiful box packed with organic greens from Melissa’s Produce; I have not been otherwise compensated for this post and the opinions are all mine.


Mar 012013


Fresh California Orange Juice from

I am standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes. A coffee maker is gurgling just to the right, and a few feet behind me there is a skillet with onions and potatoes cut in small cubes, destined to become a diner-worthy accompaniment to the eggs and toast. It’s cold in our small 70s kitchen that could have easily come from an Updike Rabbit novel, but all the smells that surround me scream comfort and warmth. The grass in the front yard sways in the rhythm with the wind that blows from the west, bringing along the briny smell of the ocean that manages to break in through the open door.

We don’t have a dishwasher and I should feel dismayed and frustrated as this is the first time that I have to do without that luxury since I arrived on the American soil more than twenty years ago; but I don’t feel burdened: there is a beautiful rose bud that opened this morning monopolizing my view and competing with an idyllic scene featuring several small boys milling around, chasing one another along the sidewalk.

My dad soaking some California sunshine underneath the orange tree

We might be experiencing the record-low temperatures for Southern California for the first time, but my nose being cold on most mornings is the small price to pay for the eternal and uninterrupted blue that greets me when I open my eyes and inevitably makes me smile. A jasmine bush hugs one side of the garage door and its sweet fragrance reaches me through my bedroom window as I try to silence the alarm clock.

Yes, life is hectic and I still need at least five or six extra hours a day to accomplish everything. But even with the constant adrenaline rush I manage to take in all the beauty and serenity around me and acknowledge how grateful I am that my girls and I are living on this particular street, in this bungallow decorated by many wooden artifacts from Papua New Guinea, Thailand, and Japan, with this wonderful woman who is old enough to be my mother, but young enough to be my soul sister, a confidante and a friend. I cannot wait to tuck my girls in their bunk beds, pour myself a glass of wine and sit on the edge of her bed for our regular nightly chit-chat.

As I wave to the neighbors and greet the mailman, I feel as if I truly belonged to this street with its undulating tall palm trees, luscious yards, and red-tiled roofs. Every day is like a present, unexpected, but eagerly awaited and greatly appreciated.

California sunset from

There are several large plastic bowls resting on the brown-and-yellow-tiled kitchen floor filled to the capacity with oranges my dad picked from the tree in the back yard. Freshly squeezed orange juice is on the menu this morning; and many mornings to come. I feel as if I were living a dream as the sweet, sticky liquid runs down my fingers and the smell of fresh citrus envelops me. It might not sound grand or imposing, but a glass filled with the juice that came from the fruit in our back yard makes me tremendously happy to be alive right now, in this beautiful part of the world that I can finally call home.

Fresh California Orange Juice from

Feb 022013

It’s been several weeks since Casey of Kitchen Play instigated Cookbook Tour to promote An Edible Mosaic, a brand new book by one of our own, Faith Gorsky Safarini. The six of us embarked on this exciting ride, trying to approach the task from various angles. We wrote a review of the book; we cooked one recipe each for an interesting prix fixe meal; we had a Twitter party where we all prepared the same dish, cooking and tweeting at the same time; we promoted Faith and her book on Facebook; and we posted photos on Cookbook Tour board on Pinterest.

Our project is slowly winding down and I wanted to ask Faith a few questions about her culinary adventures in a Middle Eastern kitchen. As an expat, I was curious to learn about her experiences and observations. I hope you will enjoy the interview. Thanks, Faith for allowing me and my readers a glimpse into your life!

Faith Gorsky

1. What types of food were your favorites before you met your Syrian husband? What did you grow up with? What kinds of food did you like to prepare previously?

My mom was a pretty great cook and I grew up eating classic American meals like roast chicken, beef stew, and spaghetti and meatballs. When my husband (Mike) and I met, I was very young and still in law school (and I was in undergrad right before that), so I only had access to small kitchens and minimal ingredients and equipment, and very little time to cook. When I had spare time, I was cooking a few Indian dishes that my friends in undergrad had taught me, along with a few classic American recipes that I had learned from my mom. My cooking really blossomed after marrying.

2. What was your initial response to Syrian food? How adventurous were you?

I was very open to Syrian food, and I always tell myself I will try anything once. Overall, I immediately loved the food, of course with a few exceptions (like Yogurt Soup and Jute Mallow Soup). But even those few dishes that I didn’t enjoy right away have come to grow on me over time.

3. What was the first Middle Eastern dish that warmed your heart? 

Fried Eggplant with Garlic and Parsley Dressing, because of the story around it.

My most treasured food memories all revolve around family; because of the deep emotional connection linking the food with the feeling, eating the food always conjures up happiness. This is perhaps my favourite food memory.

A few years ago I was in Zabadani, a rural area north of Damascus in Syria. My husband and I were staying with his family in their country home for a few days, and another family had come to visit. Of course a feast was in order.

My mother-in-law and the other ladies were busy all day making a variety of many different dishes. Out of all the foods served that day, a very simple fried eggplant dish with garlic and parsley dressing was by far my favorite. I had tasted eggplant before, but this was the dish that made me fall in love with it, and it was at that moment when my mother-in-law realized that my husband and I truly were perfect for each other. You see, my hubby hates eggplant in any form and my mother-in-law has always hoped he’d marry someone who loves it!

As I sat there ignoring almost every other dish on the table and gushing about this simple eggplant dish, Sahar sat there beaming. Reliving that memory in my mind every time I eat this dish is what makes it so meaningful for me.

4. What was the first dish that you mastered?

Fried Kibbeh. My mother-in-law loves to tell the story of when she first showed me how to make this dish-she and I were working in the living room at a coffee table as we shaped the kibbeh, relaxed and chatting happily as best we could; remember, she speaks Arabic and I speak English, and although we both know a little of the other’s language, it is oftentimes a challenge, but surprisingly we understand each other more than you might think! She formed one perfect torpedo-shaped kibbeh and after I saw her shape the first one, I joined right in. Of course my kibbeh wasn’t nearly as perfect looking as hers, but I soon improved and she said I was able to make kibbeh after seeing it made only once, which is something no one else that she has taught has been able to do. Here’s how she describes it: I’ve tried to teach many Arabic women how to make Kibbeh Mekliyeh; it takes several times before they can do it, and some never even master it. Faith saw me make it once and the next time she made it herself. As we say in Arabic, laha nefus ala el ekel (literally meaning, she has breath that is good for food, which means she has a deep passion for cooking).

It was an incredible feeling that night when we sat down to dinner and my mother-in-law pointed out to the family the kibbeh that I had made.

Photo by Faith Gorsky

5. Is there a dish you did not care for no matter how many times you tried it?

Surprisingly, no! The few dishes that I didn’t like at first have now become favorites and are regularly made in my kitchen. I think the only reason I didn’t like them to begin with is because I didn’t grow up eating them, and some dishes come as quite a surprise the first time around! (For example, Jute Mallow Soup, which has a slimy texture and earthy flavor that is brightened with garlic and lemon.)

6. How did the differences in language influence your cooking?

The main influence that the language barrier had was that it necessitated me getting in the kitchen alongside my mother-in-law and watching everything she did. But really, I would have had to do that anyway; as with any old-world cook, she doesn’t write down cooking times, steps, or ingredient measurements. She knows how to do things based on her senses, how much spice to add to meat by looking or tasting, how long to knead dough by its feel.

7. How big a role did love for your husband play in your desire to master Middle Eastern cuisine? (I drew the line at cooking squirrel (and other rodents), but mastered biscuits, chicken and dumplings, fried buttermilk chicken, gumbo, and NC BBQ ribs.)

Wanting to make my hubby happy played a huge role in my desire to master Middle Eastern cooking, especially at first when I wanted to make sure that I’d be able to cook his favorite dishes. He’s quite a picky eater in general, even when it comes to Middle Eastern foods; he often talks about how growing up his mom would make one dish for the entire family and a separate dish just for him because of how picky he was. So, this meant that there wasn’t a huge array of dishes that I had to learn in the beginning to keep him satisfied; however, as time went on my own desire to learn more about the cuisine because of my own love for it took over.

Roasted Chickpeas – Photo by Faith Gorsky

8. Did you teach your MIL some American dishes? (I know how hard my mother resisted.)

Yes, which was great fun! To name just a few, I taught her my favorite chocolate cake (which is my mom’s recipe for Crazy Cake, which also sometimes goes by the name of Wacky Cake), roast chicken with gravy, lasagna, and oatmeal. These are foods that my in-laws have heard about and have wanted to try for years, but didn’t know how to make. My mother-in-law was very willing to try anything I made, and luckily everything was a hit with the whole family.

9. What are some of your husband’s favorite dishes, Middle Eastern and American? Did you manage to make him a meal to equal his mother’s?

Middle Eastern foods: Shawarma, Mujaddara (Lentil and Bulgur Wheat Pilaf with Caramelized Onion), Molokhia (Jute Mallow Soup), Shakreeyeh (Lamb & Yogurt Soup), and of course Hummus and Falafel.

American foods: Spaghetti, tacos, roast chicken, beef pot roast, and battered fish fry.

It’s funny, Mike is so incredibly picky about his food, which was one of the main factors that drove me to learn how to cook his favorites from his mom. Once I started learning all his favorite dishes and eventually mastered them, he starting telling me all the time how he doesn’t have to miss his mom’s cooking because mine is every bit as good. Of course I give his mom the credit for this – she is the one who taught me, after all!

10. What would be the advice you can give home cooks who would like to get their feet wet with Middle Eastern food?

The best advice I can give is not to be intimidated just because a recipe, ingredient, or cooking method might be unfamiliar. For example, take my chicken shawarma recipe. I marinate chicken in a blend of seasonings and yogurt, and utilize a two-step cooking method that yields incredibly moist, flavorful chicken. I had an American cook tell me she was leery to use yogurt as a marinade for chicken, saying it sounded “weird” to her. (What she really meant was that she had never done it before and so she had no idea what to expect.) She ended up making the dish and not only has it become a favorite for her and her family, but it has also become a regular dinnertime staple. If you keep an open mind, you never know what new favorite you might discover.

Pickles – Photo by Faith Gorsky

I enjoyed being a part of this group. An Edible Mosaic is a gorgeous book filled with flavorful recipes that can instantly transport you into a Middle Eastern souq. I hope you check it out – I know you will love it! Thanks, Faith and Casey! And thanks to my friends and fellow bloggers for such a pleasant company!

Heather of Kitchen Concoctions

Laura of Spiced Life

Jennifer of Savory Simple

Stephanie of 52 Kitchen Adventures

Amanda of Maroc Mama

Dec 132012


An edible mosaic

My parents were avid collectors of books. A few times a month a large cardboard box would appear at the door, and I could not wait for Mother to cut into it and retract the treasures I knew lurked inside. I would bury my nose in the middle of the book and inhale the smell that to this day makes me high. And, yes, if you are dying to know, there are distinct local differences in new book smells; I definitely recognize and prefer the books printed in Serbia, but will accept a new American book if I am in an urgent state of withdrawal.

One glorious day the plain cardboard box yielded a set of four beautiful books titled 1001 Arabian Nights. All four jackets were different, depicting mosques, luscious gardens, bazaars, and tables filled with platters of most inviting, albeit exotic food. Hard covers were ultramarine blue with intricate gold embossing swirling around the sides and I loved to run my fingers over the grooves. I don’t know how many times I read the tales of old Baghdad, dreaming of the days of caliph Harun al-Rashid, hearing the alluring sound of zithers, and wishing in my young, romantic, pre-teen heart that I could leave my pedestrian and boring reality and teleport to the Orient, roaming the souks and inhaling the aroma of grilled spicy kabobs wafting from around the corner.

A few days ago there was a plain cardboard box waiting for me at the door step. As soon as I saw where it came from, I rushed inside, trying to claw my way through the tape to get to the loot inside. When I finally liberated the book from the bondage of styrofoam  popcorn, my heart fluttered a bit, remembering the excitement of years gone by. I opened it randomly and inhaled fresh-from-the presses smell, experiencing the high that sustained me for years.

An Edible Mosaic by Faith E. Gorsky brought me back to my childhood when I lived vicariously through the characters of 1001 Arabian Nights. Three decades later I still feel the allure of the Orient. This time I get to experience the streets of Damascus through the eyes of an American woman married to a Syrian man. I don’t have to book the plane tickets. I don’t have to pack a single suitcase. I don’t have to deal with any bureaucracy. All I have to do is open the book and explore.

I want to invite you to come along on this trip with me. I am a part of a group of bloggers who are promoting Faith’s book. We are hosting a virtual potluck and a book review on Monday.  There is so much to learn and I hope you’ll join the fun of exploring the culinary culture that spans so many centuries.

Here is what Faith has to say about her cookbook:

My cookbook, An Edible Mosaic: Middle Eastern Fare with Extraordinary Flair, has over 100 Middle Eastern recipes. The recipes are authentic, but streamlined just a bit for the way we cook today, with unique ingredients demystified and approachable cooking techniques that anyone can follow. The book includes a few classic Middle Eastern favorites (like Hummus, Falafel, and Vegetarian Stuffed Grape Leaves), but there are also a few dishes that might become new favorites, like Red Bell Pepper Walnut Dip (Muhammara), Lentil and Bulgur Pilaf with Caramelized Onion (Mujaddara Burghul), and Meat and Vegetable Casserole with Pomegranate (Kowaj). I also share my method for making the most tender and flavorful Chicken Shawarma at home without the need for any special equipment.

This cookbook is incredibly special to me because it holds a treasure of my in-laws’ family recipes. After marrying, I had the opportunity to spend six months in Damascus where I learned the ins and outs of Middle Eastern food from my lovely Syrian mother-in-law, Sahar. Watching her cook is like watching a ballerina perform a masterpiece.

The last thing I want to mention about my cookbook is that culture and the cuisine truly enrich each other, which is why I include cultural tidbits and stories from my Middle Eastern travels throughout the book. These snippets of culture help to paint a richer image of the recipes.

I hope you enjoy these Middle Eastern recipes as much as I do, and maybe they’ll become the basis for new traditions in your family!

Faith’s cookbook launch.

Virtual potluck.

Kitchen Play on Cookbook Tour

Nov 172012

Produce from

I had a chance to visit Product Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit which took place the last weekend of October in Anaheim, California. It was the biggest fresh produce expo in history with about 21,000 attendees from more than 60 countries sharing the imposing 247,000 square feet of the exhibit hall. Food industry professionals gathered here to present their best accomplishments, to network, and learn about newest trends in ever-changing world of fresh food.

It was exciting to see so many people enthusiastic about food in one place. Many booths were designed with utmost care to attract the attention in the interminable sea of colors, with soft carpets installed on top of hard floors, cushy chairs, amazing backdrops, neatly stacked products, or piles of picture-perfect produce in all its glory.

Beans from

We walked through the elaborate labyrinth talking to the representatives of various products and services that make the world of fresh produce: small, organic vendors, big and established farms, distributing, packaging, and transportation companies, and they all eagerly shared their passion and expertise with us.

As the public is getting more concerned and vocal about healthier choices in food, food safety, sustainability, and food advocacy, the fresh produce industry is under pressure to constantly improve and not only follow, but set new trends. It was obvious from the general feel at the expo that the vast majority of the companies represented here listen to the consumers and try to predict and satisfy their needs.

Tomatoes from

With kids being the main focus of  this year’s exposition, we encountered many products reared towards children, with healthier foods packaged in fun and colorful ways to appeal to the youngest and their parents. To emphasize the growing awareness of this issue, eleven professional chefs competed at a live Chef Demo Challenge to come up with healthy, but still tasty kids’ menu options that would meet U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Half the Plate guidelines. The adult, industry judges picked Chilean Fresh Fruit Pizza from the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association as the winner, and the kid-judges chose the Date Shake by the California Date Administrative Committee.

While most of the producers of familiar fruits and vegetables strive to expand their assortment by offering a number of different types, including  heirloom varieties, we noticed an abundance of unusual and exotic produce rarely found at most big grocery chains in the U.S. With globalization and Internet, the world is getting smaller and the consumers more and more curious and educated. To answer their demands, the growers and suppliers of fresh produce have to offer a wide array of products.

Mushrooms from

Vendors chose many approaches to promoting their brands, from games, to sweepstakes, to giving out samples, to passing out shopping bags and kitchen items bearing the logo of the company, to having your picture taken with the Ocean Spray bog guys! Many opted for appealing to the taste and smell of visitors, as some of the most distinguished local, national, and international chefs prepared flavorful small plates featuring fresh produce in most imaginative ways.

Ocean Spray Bog Guys from

LA Chef Ricardo Zarate of Picca and Mo-chica prepared a delightful Roast Beet Salad with Burrata and a Ceviche featuring the produce from his native Peru. There was pisco sour, too.

Patricia Jinich, whose TV show Pati’s Mexican Table airs on Create TV, celebrated bold flavors of Mexico with her Classic Avocado Soup and Tomato and Mozarella Salad with Ancho Chile Pickled Vinaigrette.

Pati Jinich from

With Patricia Jinich

New York food writer and recipe developer David Bonom served an Asian wrap and sliders, representing fresh flavors of Coastline Produce, a grower-shipper company of produce farmed in California, Arizona, and Mexico.

David Bonom from

With David Bonom

LA’s celebrity chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, Food Network’s “Too Hot Tamales” and owners of Border Grill restaurants in Santa Monica, Las Vegas and Downtown LA, set up a south-of-the-border party for California Avocado Commission in front of their Border Grill truck, passing out Cilantro Chicken with Avocado and Pickled Tomato Salsa, Cumin Glazed Rib Tacos with Avocado Pineapple Salsa and Grilled Corn Esquite,  and Guacamole with Roasted Tomato and Bacon.

Idaho Potato Commission had a great buffet line set up at their cozy, centrally located space, featuring Creamy and Comforting Mashed Potatoes and Potato Donuts. Thank you, Don Odiorne, for letting us see that there is a much bigger picture hidden in a homely spud! I am just a little sorry I missed the Big Potato Truck.

Potato Doughnuts from

Potato doughnuts were perfect pick-me-up while we took an informative break at Idaho Potato Commission’s pavilion

San Francisco-based celebrity chef Ryan Scott prepared Double Chocolate Cookies, Grilled Escarole Salad, and Pancakes, using Sunsweet’s Plum Amazins.

At the Korean Pavilion we were greeted by Sauteed Assorted Korean Mushrooms, Seaweed Snacks in various flavors, and Korean Kimchi featuring some of the best Korean produce.

Melissa’s Produce’s chefs had a long line in front of their counters where they served Lentil Tacos with several different great tasting salsas, and extremely popular Vegetable Sushi and  Asian Fruit Salad featuring stunning magenta-colored dragon fruit. It did not surprise us that they won People’s Choice Award for best display at Fresh Summit, as their pavilion was like a colorful farmers’ market in a faraway country.

PMA Melissa's from

At closing, my feet were tired, my shoulders in pain, my belly full, and my mind reeling from all the sights and smells of the day. But I felt excited as I processed all the information I received, feeling grateful to play a small part in this amazing world of food. Thank you, Meg Miller of PMA for this educational experience!

Thanks, Robert Schueller for the red-carpet treatment – you were the most gracious and knowledgeable host!

Some of my friends shared their experiences and impressions of PMA’s Fresh Summit on their blog

Fresh Summit – The Jolly Tomato

The World of Produce: My Visit to the PMA Fresh Food Summit – Family Spice

Bijouxs Bits: Five Little Gems from the PMA Fresh Summit – Bijouxs

Everything but Produce: Attending the Fresh Summit PMA Show in Anaheim, Part 1 – California Greek Girl

P.S. It makes me even happier to be associated with this industry when I know that the companies who exhibited at PMA’s Fresh Summit donated 231,165 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables – about 24 truckloads – to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County on Oct. 28.


Nov 122012

Lazy Acres from

Lazy Acres Market opened this week in Long Beach. Some of you might shrug your shoulders and move on to the story of the Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez break-up (do not ask me how I know this; it is not because I have two teenage daughters under my roof, but despite of the fact). And I understand and forgive the ambivalence of the un-initiated. But  the mere thought of a grocery store based completely on natural, organic, mostly local products was enough to set me driving on south-bound Pacific Coast Highway, navigating the dreaded round-about and roaming the unknown, and therefore hostile territory without a GPS (horrors, I know!)

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

By the time I arrived, the parking lot looked like a mosh pit at a Scandinavian death metal band concert, with cars weaving around the aisles in a desperate attempt to find an empty space. I silently invoked my inner Buddha and parked in front of a T. J. Maxx, as my eyes followed a seemingly interminable line of people snaking around the corner, patiently waiting for the doors of Lazy Acres to open.

Lazy Acres from

I was inside the store minutes before the grand opening, snapping pictures of employees and perfectly arranged produce with enthusiasm of an E! reporter at a Versace fashion show. I tell you, people, I could set up a tiny tent and live in this store. As a matter of fact, I don’t even need a tent, as they sell yoga mats in the fitness section. Which is right next to the organic teas and natural supplements.

Lazy Acres from


Lundberg Family Rice Products at Lazy Acres from

I was happy to discover Lundberg Family Rice products here!

The coffee station is better than Starbucks and you can pick a variety of flavors for your smoothie right from the refrigerated bins filled with produce. As tempted as Kale Smoothie sounded (not! I know I am bad, but I have not jumped on the green wagon yet; I love to eat green food, but drinking it is an alien concept), and as satisfying as a sample of Breakfast Smoothie tasted, I chose Blueberry Splash, thick, vivacious, and splendidly speckled with berry goodness.

Lazy Acres Long Beach from

Breakfast taken care of, you can move along a few paces and get your lunch order filled as you pick between juicy Santa Maria marinated tri-tip, seasoned grilled chicken breast, peppery roast beef, and pastrami; if your preferences lie in the herbivorous realm, your choices are even better (thin crusted  Pizza Margherita with burrata? Pizza sandwich with grilled vegetables? Or with tofu? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) Seriously, this place has a bona fide wood-burning oven on premises! You squint slightly and you are in Tuscany, just like that.

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

Looking at the cheeses lined up on the shelves made my eyes glaze over as I imagined myself rolling a wheel of raw-milk gouda down the aisle and to my car. This pale yellow baby encased in waxy red skin was so big that my fingers would not have touched if I tried to encircle it. So, carrying it out was definitely out of the question. Then, again, if I manage to get squatter’s rights, all I would need is a small paring knife and a trip or two to the produce section to be in heaven.

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

A small area of the store is designated solely to sushi and sashimi. And sake, of course. Because it is punishable by law not to imbibe sake while eating raw fish. I think. At least it should be. The workers behind the counters moved so fast that most of my photos ended up blurry. Or they were blurry  because I stared at the perfectly aligned rolls on black trays and pressed my shutter randomly. Oh, the choices! I wished my dear friend E. were there with me as I put my face against the glass transfixed by glistening cubes of Hawaiian poke, as welcoming as a soulful sound of ukulele that played in the background. OK, ukulele was all in my head. But it should have been there. Along with pretty girls in hula skirts.

Lazy Acres from

The fish counter was like an art exhibit displaying every hue on the color wheel from pristine white of cold-water fish to almost maroon of wild-caught swordfish (which happened to be on sale). And just in case you lived in a glass bubble for the last decade and have not heard about the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a warning is taped on the glass guiding you to better choices.

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

Pete was standing behind his little table grilling New York strip steaks from naturally raised beef and passing out the samples, reciting again and again for the sake of some unbelieving customers (no, no, no, definitely not me!) that the only seasoning on the meat was salt and pepper. I assumed that he was in competition with the sushi people as he was moving with lightning speed trying to refill his tray of quickly disappearing samples. I would have to give him a medal for multitasking as he managed to fulfill his task while explaining in details the air-chilling process of chicken and pork sold at Lazy Acres.

Lazy Acres from

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

I am a trivia geek, and learning about the proverbial mammoth I bring home to my young ones is of the utmost importance to me. Allow me to paraphrase Pete, and enlighten you. The most important thing in meat industry is chilling the meat once the animal has been killed (I have to apologize to my herbivore friends for this segment) to prevent the bacteria from multiplying. Most big meat producers dunk the chickens in icy water, thousands at a time, and stir them for a while to get them to the right temperature. This makes them water-logged, heavier, and more prone to being infected with salmonella (if one out of 15,000 chickens has salmonella, the rest being plunged in the mix might develop it, too).

Lazy Acres from

A few smaller poultry and pork producers are employing an air-chilling process, where the chickens (and pigs) are suspended on lines or racks and blasted with frigid air which instantly brings the temperature of the meat down and prevents breeding of the harmful bacteria. These chickens are not frozen, nor water-logged, and their chances of containing salmonella are minuscule. “I’ll take ‘Poultry Processing’ for$2000, Alex!”

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

Produce section offered as many varieties and more than a thriving European Farmers’ Market. Just knowing that every leaf, stalk, and root displayed on the shelves was grown seasonally, organically, naturally, without GMOs and mostly locally was enough to make me feel all cozy and warm.

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

Lost in the sea of heirloom apples, citrus with stems and leaves still attached, and gnarly, alien-looking bulbous stalks of Brussels sprouts, I felt relieved to find my friends from Melissa’s Produce showing off their sweet young coconuts and pouring samples of coconut water for weary customers (yes, shopping and taking pictures is an extremely demanding and tiring job!).

Lazy Acres from

As I was dragging my feet towards the checkout and exit, I stumbled onto the bulk produce department and mills that grind nuts. You know how you can buy coffee beans and grind them at the store for the freshest experience? Well, Lazy Acres Market has the mills that grind peanuts into peanut butter, cashews into cashew butter, almonds into almond butter, and so on. All you have to do is place your plastic container underneath the wide spout and press the button! No preservatives, no additives, no extra salt or sugar – just the nuts in all their beauty. (Psssst, there is one machine that makes peanut and chocolate chip butter, but this is just a rumor :)

Lazy Acres from

I left the store feeling like Bugs Bunny in one of the Looney Toon cartoons where he sees colorful bubbles in front of his eyes. I saw various fruits and vegetables and meats dancing inside my eyes as I made my way towards my car, toting a beautiful duck breast and a wedge of that raw-milk gouda that I coveted so much. All the way home, after making one wrong turn after another, I kept on planning my next excursion to this store, thinking of inviting my friends who would be as excited about natural, healthy, locally grown, farm-to-table, organic foods as I am.

Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from


Lazy Acres from

Robert, thank you for giving me the chance to explore the Lazy Acres Market. And thanks for that beautiful, soft, flame-kissed pizza Pastrami sandwich:) This was, indeed an enlightening experience, even though I did not end up staking a claim on the store’s real estate.

Lazy Acres Market in Long Beach is the second store to open after the success of Santa Barbara location. I just hope they open another one somewhere in my neighborhood! But even if that does not happen, taking a forty minute road trip down the picturesque albeit treacherous PCH  to Long Beach is definitely worth it.