Cooking the Aleppo Code

2009.Apr.22 Wednesday · 11 comments

in Casa SaltShaker, Food & Recipes

“Aleppo – Town of ancient and of modern Syria, and capital of a Turkish vilayet of the same name, between the Orontes and Euphrates rivers; situated on the banks of a little desert stream, Nahr-el-Haleb, seventy miles east of Alexandretta, its seaport on the Mediterranean. Formerly it derived its importance from being on the route to Bagdad and southern Persia; and it is said to have contained at one time as many as 200,000 souls. It can boast of sheltering one of the oldest Jewish communities, mentioned in Ps. lx. Though only ten days’ journey north of Damascus, it was traditionally regarded, in letters of divorce, as the most northerly point a Palestinian Jew might visit without being considered a traveler, the southern limit being Alexandria in Egypt. In the sixteenth century one of the routes to India still passed through it, and on account of this the city became one of the great attractions for the Jews who traveled eastward.”

– Jewish Encyclopedia

Buenos Aires – Moving away from our week’s worth of Mexican themed food adventures, this last weekend happened to be Syrian Independence Day. I’ve still been playing around with the book I got last year, Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews, and decided that it was a perfect time to try out some of my versions of these recipes on some unsuspecting customers… however, one of those potential customers sprung a bit of a disturbing surprise on me – he had sent me a very pleasant note well in advance to ask about dining with us when he and his wife were in BA, and as I got to the planning stage, I sent off an e-mail to let him know I’d posted up the theme and would be planning the menu shortly. The theme stated nothing more than “Syrian Independence Day, we explore the famous cuisine of the Syrian Jewish community”. I received a note back which I’ll have to paraphrase, as, apparently, I deleted it, that read something like, “While we have eaten Jewish food in the past, it’s not something we would generally want to eat, so we will wait to see what sort of Jewish menu it is.” I replied, I hope, politely, though pretty much already knowing that I was not going to extend an invite, asking him to clarify (I mean, maybe he just didn’t like gefilte fish once), and received a simple response, “Chalk it up to us being narrow-minded Boston bigots.” I didn’t contact him again, though I can at least appreciate the self-awareness he has.

Tomato-Baharat Salad, Smoked Eggplant Salad

On to the food – first off, a nice batch of fresh pita bread, sprinkled with a spice mixture of sesame, coriander, cumin, thyme, mint and salt. I like pita bread… I think I’ll make that more often. Originally I was thinking a trio of small salads, but as I was putting the evening together it became clear there was going to be way too much food, so I cut back to two. The first, charred eggplants, mashed up and mixed with lots of finely chopped red bell pepper, garlic and parsley, and finished with lemon juice, olive oil, cumin, smoked paprika and salt. The second, diced vine-ripened tomatoes tossed with minced red onion and flavored with a fruit vinegar, olive oil, baharat, crushed red pepper flakes and salt. We liked both so much that the second night we made a lot of extra and just chowed down in the kitchen.

Red Lentil Noodle Soup

A simple soup – in a little bit of olive oil I sauteed a couple of chopped yellow onions and some garlic cloves until lightly browned, then added about a pound of red lentils, topped it off with water, simmered until nearly done and then added freshly made egg noodles (2 cups 0000 flour, pinch of salt, 1 egg, water), a good amount of baby spinach, and lots of fresh mint leaves.

Braised sweetbreads over saffron rice

Interestingly, when I posted that this menu would include sweetbreads, and even at the dinners, not one person piped up with an object. We have a French dinner coming up in about a week and a half, and I’ve gotten a steady stream of “ewww” type messages asking me to change the menu – I’m not going to, even though it’s, at the moment, looking a little sparse for reservations. As a local chef friend of mine said to me recently, “I don’t mind if they try it and don’t like it, but I lose interest when they’re not even willing to try something – isn’t that the idea behind a tasting menu? New things and flavors? If not, go somewhere that isn’t doing a chef’s tasting menu.” I thought, and given the cleaned plates, our customers thought, that this dish was delicious. Poached the sweetbreads in a little acidified salted water to set them, then drained and pressed them, cleaned them, sliced them. In a pot, sauteed lots of chopped celery and sweet white onions until soft, added a good amount of halved cremini mushrooms to the pot and continued cooking for about ten minutes, added some tomato paste and the sweetbreads, covered the pot, turned the heat down low, and let them braise for about an hour. Seasoned with salt and black pepper. Served over saffron rice flavored with cinnamon, cardamom, salt, onion, and toasted pinenuts.

Roast Chicken with Lemon Sauce

While I like simple roast chicken dishes, I think I need to come up with prettier presentations – yet, at the same time, there’s something about leaving it simple and having the flavors be a bit surprising that is kind of fun. The chicken itself, rubbed in salt, black pepper and hot paprika and simply oven roasted. The sauce, a creamy yet vibrant lemon sauce made by beating three whole eggs into three cups of chicken stock along with the juice of two lemons and three tablespoons of flour. Cooked that over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it just thickened – not too much or the eggs curdle – off the heat, seasoned with salt and white pepper. Yum. To go with it, cauliflower which I’d parboiled and then at last minute dipped in beaten egg and then into a mix of breadcrumbs and grated sardo cheese (not so much a middle eastern recipe as a southern Italian one), deep fried them, drained, salted, and added to the plate.

Apricot, almond and pistachio tart

Following on the mixed nut tart I made last week, I decided on something similar, though a different sort of crust. This time, a very basic pâte brisèe, one of the easiest of the tart crusts, the way I learned to make it a flat ratio of 5 parts flour to 4 parts cold butter to 3 parts sugar [Edit: this is a ratio by weight, not volume]. Pressed into tartlet molds, par-baked about 6-7 minutes, then filled with a mix of caramel, cream, honey, chopped apricots, pistachios, almonds and a splash of orange blossom water. Baked until bubbly and golden brown.

Those Bostonians don’t know what they missed.


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Cher Martin April 22, 2009 at 20:21

Is your proportion for your pate brissee by weight or volume?

dan April 22, 2009 at 20:22

Sorry, that’s by weight. With pastry I virtually always work by weight, but should have stated it explicitly here…. 😉

Cher Martin April 22, 2009 at 20:55

Thanks, Dan. Family and I are looking forward to another journey to BA and Argentina in June-July and hope to visit Casa Salt Shaker again.

Frank Rocca July 26, 2009 at 14:43

Dan, You very nearly owe me the cost of a computer monitor, because, as has happened in the past, my immediate reaction to your extraordinary food and its perfect photo presentation caused me to leap immediately at the screen to savor the goodness!! I shall attempt the apricot tart in the next couple of days. As for the lemon sauce on the chicken (not to mention the preparation of the chicken itself) is going to cripple me for ordinary roast chicken!!! I remain your greatest admirer. F.

dan July 26, 2009 at 16:12

As long as you only lick the screen and don’t try biting down on it, it’ll be allright.

Leave a Comment

{ 6 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: