I’ve always gravitated toward Middle-Eastern cooking. A lot of the region’s staples happen to be vegetarian and I’m familiar with the food, having lived and travelled throughout the area. Of course what really keeps me coming back to the recipes is the taste.
When we lived in Brooklyn I was a regular at Tanoreen, perhaps one of the best restaurants in the city and worth the shlep to Bay Ridge on the R train. If you haven't been to Tanoreen, Rawia Bisharah's beloved and ever-popular restaurant, you're missing out on the most delicious Middle-Eastern (in this case Palestinian) food this side of the Atlantic.
When I want to make Middle-Eastern food at home, since I no longer live within a train ride of Tanoreen, I grab Jerusalem. It has amazing recipes and mouth-watering photos. And on a personal note, I find the connection between Ottolenghi (who's from the Jewish part of Jerusalem) and Tamimi (who's from the Palestinian part of Jerusalem) to be a source of inspiration in a place where it’s sometimes hard to find areas of commonality, let alone a deep friendship.
I wanted to keep things a bit light last week, so when I spotted this recipe for Baby Spinach Salad with Dates and Almonds I knew it would be perfect. The ingredients are straightforward and I had everything on hand except sumac, which is a wonderful spice with a kind of tart flavor. So the sumac hunt began…
It was kind of disappointing. I told Otis and Theodore, "We're going on a special treasure hunt. Doesn't that sound like fun?" At first they looked excited, but after making three separate stops and coming up empty-handed they were loosing interest...fast.
It was after 6 p.m. so the good spice shops in town were already closed. I picked up my phone and called another “specialty market” and was transferred to bulk. I asked, “Hey, do you guys have sumac at your Colfax location?” The lady on the other end said, “Hold on, I’ll check.” I was put on hold for about 10 minutes. Then a voice at the other end of the phone said, “You probably meant Turmeric. Yes we do.” Sigh. (If I wanted Turmeric I would have asked for it…)
As if coming out of a fog, I said to myself, “What on Earth are you doing? You know where to get really great Middle-Eastern food and spices. Get with it girl…” So we drove to Aurora (a suburb of Denver with a large immigrant community and awesome food), made our way to S. Parker road where Arash Market was waiting for us with open doors. And there it was, hanging on a wall surrounded by lots of other spices, a little packet of sumac.
Baby Spinach Salad with Dates + Almonds
(Courtesy of Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi)
Yields 4 to 6 servings
1 tablespoon wine vinegar
1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced
3 1/2 ounces dates (100 grams), preferably Medjool, pitted and quartered lengthwise (add more if you're so inclined)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (30 grams)
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 small pitas (about 3 1/2 ounces, or 100 grams), roughly torn into 1 1/2 -inch pieces
1/2 cup whole unsalted almonds (75 grams), coarsely chopped (I used slivered almonds and added them to the pan with the pita for about 1 minute.)
2 teaspoons sumac
1/2 teaspoon chile flakes
5 to 6 ounces baby spinach leaves (150 grams)
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- · Put vinegar, onion and dates in a small bowl. Add a pinch of salt and mix well with your hands. Leave to marinate for 20 minutes, then drain any residual vinegar and discard. (It didn't have any residual liquid.)
- · Meanwhile, heat butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add pita and cook for 4 to 6 minutes, stirring all the time, until pita is golden. Add almonds and continue cooking until pita is crunchy and browned and almonds are toasted and fragrant, about 2 minutes more. Remove from heat and mix in sumac, chile flakes and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Set aside to cool.
- · When ready to serve, toss spinach leaves with pita mix in a large mixing bowl. Add dates and red onion, remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, the lemon juice and another pinch of salt. Taste for seasoning and serve immediately.