Last week about this time I was dining on seared scallops at Café Maude. The scallops were served on a walnut yogurt flavored with za’atar. It was delicious. Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice that my mother and grandmother used to cook with. It’s the Lebanese version of pesto, only typically used dry as opposed to in solution like pesto.
I was lucky enough to have the world’s greatest grandmother, or as I knew her, Nona. She lived with the rest of my mother’s family in Montreal. Originally she was from Beirut, lived in Egypt in the 30’s to the 50’s then moved to Quebec with the rest of the family in the early 60’s. Nona used to come visit us for months at a time in the winter, California being somewhat nicer than Montreal for an old lady. And although those visits always seemed short, to my Father I’m sure they were an eternity.
Nona was strictly old school. Deeply religious, she was an Orthodox Jew, she took traditions pretty seriously. She also took cooking pretty seriously. As did my mother, and they were good at it.
Za’atar was one of the staples. It wasn’t something you could get in Stockton; mother would have to wait for the annual visit from Nona. We’d pick her at the airport in San Francisco, nice day trip for the family, and bring her back to Stockton, about a 2 hour drive. Dad would help with her luggage; she always came with a giant suit case and smaller case that looked kind of like a bowling ball bag. A trip from Nona was one the highlights of year for me. She would shower me with little trinkets, gifts from Canada, maple leaf plaques, that sort of thing. I especially like the pictures of Queen, especially when came on $20.00 Canadian notes, which the bank of Dad would exchange at even money. Nice windfall for a lad.
Also in those suitcases, a kilo or two of za’atar. A green spice that came in bricks, which Nona wrapped in cellophane, you know, so they wouldn’t mess up her clothes.
Yeah. Those were different times. Mom would take the bricks break them up into 1 oz portions put those in baggies and.. then I didn’t know what happened to them.
But in hindsight the thought of an old lady carrying bricks of green herbs thought the airport seems odd.
What was done with it? Mom would buy a tub of plain yogurt, now in about 1975 plain yogurt wasn’t all that easy to find. America was just getting used to the stuff and typically it was the fruit at the bottom sugary stuff in the small container. She needed the “real” stuff which actually was more like todays Greek yogurt than anything else.
She would take a container of yogurt, put into a nylon stocking and squeeze the water out of it. She’d then hang the stocking over the kitchen rod over the sink and let it continue to drain overnight. In the morning she’d have a thick white cheese that she’d combine with olive oil and za’atar and spread over bread. I’m sure it was delish but I couldn’t get over the fact that she was using a sock to strain the stuff. Neither could my father. Even though his parents were from the same part of the world as my mother and her mother, eating cheese out of a nylon stocking seemed weird to him. And me.
Can’t say I ever had any. Later on in life I learned that some families used cheese cloths for this purpose. Some families used garlic presses as well. Mom and Nona did not.
Not that they didn’t use a mountain of garlic in most dishes, it’s just that the press seem so inefficient, especially when you measured your garlic in terms of “heads” rather than “cloves”. Mom made a babaganoush that, and I don’t think this is much of an exaggeration here, went something like this:
- One whole eggplant. Put broiler on high and put the eggplant under the broiler for 10 minutes or so, until the skin is charred. Remove the eggplant, let cool and scrape out the green pasty remains of the burnt offering.
- In a bowl mix 5-10 cloves or two heads of garlic, half a cup of tahini, a generous dollop of olive oil, a generous pinch of cayenne and blend in the eggplant. Measuring cup you say? What that? We used a coffee cup or a 3 count depending on the recipe. Measurement was relative.
- Mix together and serve in a large plate, spread around the plate. Add some za’atar and more olive oil for looks and dig in. Preferably with a ripped chunk of pita bread.
Garlic pressing… put the entire head, or more, of garlic in an old bread bag, preferably one from the bread bag drawer we had, where plastic bread bags were saved for reuse. Only after being washed out and dried over the curtain rod again. That curtain rod got some use.
Sit on the floor linoleum floor with the bag and either a rolling pin or a hammer, which ever was at hand and proceed to whip the daylights outta the garlic until you had a paste. Pick out the skins and use generously.
Really generously. Couple servings of that babaganoush and you were certified Vampire Free for a couple nights. You were also having the weirdest damned dreams.. that much garlic does stuff to you.
Occasionally bad stuff.