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The glass still in hand, he knelt and shifted the harness so the fat lower section of the samovar swung around his hip.  Deftly, he crooked back an arm to open the spigot.

David expected either the syrupy, blazingly strong coffee of the Arabs and Turks, or the sweet minted tea that was sipped through a sugar cube held in the teeth.  Both were beverage staples for every Arab café and restaurant.  Instead, however, the man released from the spigot a stream of hot, thick, white liquid.  David immediately smelled a honeyed aroma that filled his mind with the image of pink and lavender flowers in a desert oasis.  It smelled absolutely luscious.

“What is that?” he asked bluntly.  The man looked up from his task, the thick stream still arcing into the glass.

“My friend has never tasted salep?  Ah, such a treat you are about to have.”  The glass was full, and the vendor closed the tap, catching the last drops in the glass with a move of long practice.  He shifted his position, the samovar swung back along the harness strap and settled once more into the middle of his back.  Still kneeling, he placed the glass of steaming liquid into a handled cradle of brass lacework and presented it to David as if it were a delicacy to a king.

David took the cup and ventured a sip.  Thick, hot, smooth, and milky, the concoction was a wonderful collection of taste and texture: a satiny sweetness unlike anything he had ever experienced.

Giambastiani, Dreams of the Desert Wind,
(Seattle, Fairwood Press, 2004), p24

When I lived in Jerusalem, on cool mornings I would go down to the shuk in the Old City where I’d buy two things: a semit and some salep. A semit (or simit) is a large bread ring topped with sesame and other seeds. Vendors would carry them stacked on a stick and I’d buy one, still warm from the oven. Salep (or sahlab) is a beverage made from wild orchid tubers dried and ground into a powder. The powder is a thickener, and when added to milk along with a bit of sugar, some flavorings, and topped with whatever your heart desires, it is a luscious treat. I loved this combo so much that it made its way into my novel, Dreams of the Desert Wind (excerpted above).

Finding true salep outside of the Levant is damned near impossible, and the only sources I’ve found for authentic salep powder run about $10 USD per 1oz/30g. Since it takes a tablespoon/15g of powder per cup of the beverage, that’s way too pricey for my taste, so for years I’ve been looking for an alternative. The mass-marketed “instant salep” powders cheat, using corn starch or potato flour as a thickener, and they are always too . . . something. Too bland, too thin, too insipid, too gummy.

But rice flour, specifically glutinous rice flour, this makes a thickened drink that is the closest approximation I have found. As a rule, I try to avoid posting recipes with uncommon ingredients (life’s hard enough), but in this case, glutinous rice flour and rose water are pretty easy to find, either in a higher-end grocery, a Mediterranean bodega, or online. They’re inexpensive, too, both costing less than an ounce of real salep powder.

Salep (or Sahlab)

Makes 1 serving

Hardware

  • A 1-quart saucier pan works best for this because of its rounded bottom, but any small pot or pan will work. Just get the whisk into the corners.

Ingredients

For the salep:

  • 1 tablespoon glutinous rice flour
  • 1 cup milk (whole is best)
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon rose water

Optional toppings:

  • ground cinnamon, nutmeg, or ginger
  • ground/chopped pistachios
  • raisins or sultanas
  • shredded coconut

Procedure

  • In a small pot, whisk the rice flour with a bit of the milk to dissolve, adding the rest of the milk when the flour is incorporated.
  • Put pot over a medium heat and warm the mixture, whisking frequently as it thickens.
  • When the salep starts to simmer, pull it from the heat. Stir in the sugar and rose water.
  • Pour into a mug or glass, and top with whatever strikes your fancy.

Notes

  • I devised this recipe is for a single serving, but it is easily scaled up for more.
  • You can replace the rice flour with corn starch or potato flour, but there’s a marked difference in consistency and umami. Not recommended.
  • Some recipes out there suggest using vanilla as well. I do not recommend this, as it cuts the flowery aroma of the rose water.

k

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Last week, the news of the day just got to me.

Scandals, graft, partisanship, falsehoods.
Wildfires, earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes.
Cruelty, abuse.
Tariffs, taxes.
Chaos.

It was just too much. The siege breached my defenses and I fell into a major depression. Dark. Caged. Compressed. Inescapable.

Wait . . . did I say “inescapable?” Scratch that, for I did, indeed, find an escape.

(more…)

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It’s hot out there. Uncomfortably hot. Freaking hot. Evil hot.

Here’s something tasty. Something easy. Something cool.

With a few common (and one not-so-common) ingredients, you can use this easy-as-you-please recipe to create a luscious, sweet/tart/creamy/flowery treat to enjoy in the long, hot evenings.

No-Churn Lemon Ice Cream

Makes 3 cups (which is like one serving here, but you can stretch it out if you’re feeling generous).

Ingredients

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1 tablespoon rosewater (see Notes)

Procedure

  • In a medium bowl, combine sugar, salt, lemon zest and juice. Stir to incorporate.
  • Add milk, cream, and rosewater and mix until the sugar and salt are dissolved (when you no longer hear a gritty sound as you stir).
  • Pour the mixture into a shallow nonreactive pan; I use an 8×8-inch CorningWare baking dish, but a metal pan will work just as well.
  • Cover with foil, and set in the freezer for 2 to 3 hours. It should be crusty at the edges but still soft in the center. Stir to mix and break up the ice crystals.
  • Return to freezer for another hour and repeat until the mixture is frozen through.
  • Serve and enjoy.

Notes

  • A garnish of chopped almonds works very well with this.
  • The addition of rosewater is technically optional, but I strongly recommend using it here, as it adds a floral top note to the treat that makes a big difference.
  • Rosewater and orange blossom water are staples in my spice cupboard. They’re inexpensive, but versatile, adding a certain je ne sais quoi to dressings, cocktails, desserts, even dishes like steamed vegetable and mashed potatoes. Like lavender is to Provençal cooking, these subtle, fragrant decoctions are essential to traditional Levantine treats, like my baklava.

k

 

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Most everyone knows that I hate single-taskers in the kitchen . . . those items in your utensil drawer or the cupboard that only do one thing. If your kitchen is anything like mine (i.e., galley style layout), you know that I have limited storage space and even greater limits on counter space. So, if I’m going to allow a single-tasker into my kitchen, it has to do an amazing job and it has to take up minimal space. (Example: the Norpro bean slicer; small in size, but an absolute champ at slicing haricot vert lengthwise.)

With that in mind, many of my friends were surprised to hear that, for a holiday present, I had purchased a sous vide cooker. “Sous vide” (pronounced “soo veed,” meaning “under vacuum”) is a cooking technique, long used by professionals, that is now enjoying a resurgence among foodies. (more…)

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On Monday I mentioned that I had gotten myself into a bit of a sticky wicket by offering to run the kitchen while my wife hosted a business retreat. News that we’d have both gluten-free and vegan dietary restrictions gave me serious agita, as I am not well-schooled in cooking for non-meat-based diets.

With a little research and some creative thinking, though, I managed to pull it off. Cooking double-purpose menus meant that I overdid it a little on the quantities, but hey, leftovers, right? (more…)

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We have houseguests staying with us this week, which naturally reminded me of the time my girlfriend’s parents came to dinner.

Let me ‘splain.

As part of her new business, my wife is hosting a retreat for some of her colleagues. They are staying with us for the week, during which they’ll all confab and meditate and plan and strategize and bond as a team.

Since my direct involvement is neither required nor particularly useful, I offered to do two things:

  1. Do the cooking and washing up.
  2. Otherwise stay out of the way.

Regular readers know that I am an unabashed omnivore; my recipes are almost always omnivorous or “omnivore adjacent.” Knowing that, you can imagine my reaction when, after planning menus and making shopping lists, I learned that one of our guests is gluten-free and another is vegan:

DON’T PANIC

(more…)

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I learned to cook from my father. He thought there was one temperature setting: Volcanic. He cooked everything fast and hard. “Braise” was not part of his vocabulary.

It took me a long time to unlearn that — burning through too many pieces of non-stick cookware was part of that re-education — but now I thoroughly appreciate the value of the entire heat spectrum. While the sear and the char are still part of my cooking toolbox, I am now quite familiar with the simmer, poach, braise, and other “go easy” settings.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara is a perfect example of “go easy” cooking. A few simple ingredients combined with proper (low) heat make for a lovely, light entree. I use capellini (angel hair) as opposed to the traditional spaghetti because I think it lends itself better to the thin, light sauce. (more…)

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