“Rose Water & Orange Blossoms: Fresh and Classic Recipes From My Lebanese Kitchen.” By Maureen Abood, Running Press. $30

My mother’s father is Lebanese, and throughout my childhood, whenever his extended family got together, the women of the family assembled a spread: hummus, tabbouleh, spinach pies, stuffed grape leaves, yogurt sauce with cucumber and mint, and fresh pita driven up from a bakery in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Always, there was a very lemony green salad made by my mostly Irish grandmother. Often, there was sheik, a casserole of eggplant, ground lamb and tomato sauce.

These meals were special. They were my one link to our family’s Lebanese and Syrian heritage and my first lesson in food as cultural identity. Lots of people ate hot dogs at their family reunions. We ate hushwe.

As adults, my sister and I were eager to take up the mantle of carrying the family recipes forward. As we delved into an old family cookbook, visited Lebanese restaurants in Greater Boston and learned to cook on our own, we realized something about those traditional family meals: They weren’t always so traditional. The dishes had been changed by the limitations and conveniences of the American grocery store, with allowances made for tinned poultry seasoning and boxed dough mixtures. Jarred Ragù had taken the place of the deeply flavored tomato sauce that is the basis of much of Lebanese homecooking.

We started to look for our family’s food origins. That’s how I started reading Maureen Abood’s food blog, “Rose Water and Orange Blossoms,” at the suggestion of Food Editor Peggy Grodinsky. Abood has turned her own kitchen-culture journey into a cookbook by the same name that has very quickly become our No. 1 tool in reclaiming family recipes past.

Abood covers the staples of Lebanese food, giving careful instructions on how to make a delectable jar of purple pickled turnips, called lift, or how to strain yogurt to create labneh, a smooth, salty condiment eaten on its own or used as a base for other dishes. She offers lamb kabobs with a zesty mint sauce and the simplest potato salad dressed with lemon, which make a perfect summer pairing. There are sweets and savories crafted from phyllo dough and a section on tracking down hard-to-find ingredients.


Abood’s Sheik al Mehsheh is made from simple ingredients. And, while the recipe is straightforward, it has none of the conveniences of prepared sauce. Broiling the eggplant slices in batches takes time. She suggests cooking them until they are a “deep mahogany” and warns that some will become charred in places. Use even those bits. Softened in the casserole, they add a caramel flavor to the sauce.

This was the dish her mother made to welcome her children home from college or other far-flung places, she writes. It’s one that I’ll be bringing to family dinners for years to come.


Eggplant with Lamb, Tomato and Pine Nuts

To toast the pine nuts, melt 1/4 tablespoon butter in a skillet, then add 1/2 cup pine nuts. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the nuts are golden brown; watch carefully, as pine nuts burn easily. When they are done, immediately remove from pan. Serve over rice pilaf

Makes 8 servings


2 large, firm eggplants

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

1 medium-size yellow onion, finely diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 pound ground lamb or beef (80 percent lean)


1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Several grinds black pepper

1 (28-ounce) can tomato sauce

1/2 cup butter-toasted pine nuts

1 1/2 cups warm water

12 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese


Preheat the broiler and line a baking sheet with foil or parchment.

Trim the stem from each eggplant, and without peeling them, cut the eggplants in 1/2-inch slices. Brush both sides of the eggplant slices with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and sprinkle them with 1 teaspoon of the salt. Arrange the slices on the prepared baking sheet and broil them in batches until they are deep mahogany brown (they’ll be slightly charred in some spots), turning them once to brown both sides, 10 to 15 minutes total.

Adjust the oven to 375 degrees F with a rack positioned in the center.

In a medium sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the remaining olive oil over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and sauté it until it is translucent, but not browned, stirring occasionally. Stir in the garlic and cook just until it is fragrant, about a minute. Add the ground lamb or beef, breaking up the meat into very small pieces with the side of a metal spoon, stirring frequently. Season the mixture with the remaining 1 teaspoon salt, the cinnamon and the pepper. Sauté until the meat is just cooked through, continuing to break up the meat into small pieces as it cooks.

Coat a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking or similar sized gratin dish with the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Spread about 1/2 cup of tomato sauce in the bottom of the dish. Lay several eggplant slices in a single layer over the sauce, covering as much surface area of the bottom of the dish as possible. Spoon half of the meat evenly over the eggplant and pour half of the remaining tomato sauce evenly over the meat. Sprinkle with one-third of the pine nuts. Now layer again with eggplant, meat, pine nuts and tomato sauce. Finish with a layer of eggplant and cover that with more tomato sauce, sprinkling the top with the remaining pine nuts.

Pour the warm water around the perimeter of the eggplant. This is an important step, or your sauce will be too thick; it may seem watery at first when you do this but the sauce will thicken as it bakes.

Cover the pan tightly with foil and bake it for 90 minutes. Remove the foil and top the eggplant evenly with fresh mozzarella cheese (rub the soft cheese between your fingers to break it up into small pieces). Bake for about 15 minutes longer, uncovered, until the cheese is bubbling and golden. Serve the eggplant warm, over rice.

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