Suzanne of Arabia

Meet Suzanne Husseini

What: The Ottawa-raised author of Modern Flavors of Arabia will be featured at a book signing and cooking demonstration

Where: Chapters Pinecrest, noon, Sunday, Oct. 21

Suzanne Husseini, host of a hit Arabian cooking show in Dubai, says she can trace her pride in her culture’s cuisine to an outing to Vincent Massey Park in Ottawa.

Suzanne Husseini, host of a hit Arabian cooking show in Dubai, says she can trace her pride in her culture’s cuisine to an outing to Vincent Massey Park in Ottawa. Chris Mikula, The Ottawa Citizen.

“On this particular Sunday we had guests from the Middle East,” recalls Husseini, who grew up in Ottawa’s Parkwood Hills area. “My mother had made Maqlouba — a dish made upside-down in a big pot. While everyone else would be cooking hotdogs and hamburgers, I was worried that we would be the joke of the day when people saw how we ceremoniously flip our pot of rice, eggplant and lamb, then eat it with copious amounts of yogurt.

“I was 11 or 12, and getting to Vincent Massey Park was the longest the drive of my life.”

When they got to the park, an Italian family was already installed in Husseini’s family’s favourite spot. That family, which made room for Husseini’s, had brought even larger pots, full of pasta and sauce.

“It was a beautiful sight,” recalls Husseini. “I saw a family cooking their traditional food and celebrating their culture, not embarrassed the least bit.

“My mother flipped her perfectly cooked maqlouba and we shared our food with our Italian neighbours. I learned a valuable life lesson and now I share and celebrate the food of my culture every chance I get.”

She has, in fact, shared her family’s traditional dishes halfway around the world. In an odd twist, the Ottawa woman became a Middle Eastern celebrity, teaching Arab people how to cook traditional Arabian dishes.

Eighteen years ago, when her husband, whom she met at the University of Ottawa, was offered a job in Dubai, they moved to the Middle East with their three young children. Soon, the outgoing Husseini found herself giving informal cooking classes in her home, introducing English-speaking travellers to Arabian cuisine.

Word of her relaxed, fun classes spread and she was offered a TV cooking show that became a hit in the Middle East. She became so well-known that when the show spawned a cookbook, it was simply called When Suzanne Cooks. That book is in its third printing and now a North American version, called Modern Flavors of Arabia, has just been published.

Softcover and with a gorgeous full-page photograph of every dish, the book (Appetite by Random House; $29.95) is Husseini’s pride and joy. She contacted and paid for the work of acclaimed Australian food photographer Petrina Tinslay herself so the book, which took her two years to write, would look as wonderful as the dishes do in her kitchen.

Husseini, who splits her time between Dubai, where her husband works as a chemical engineer, and Ottawa, where their three children attend university and where her parents still live, says the recipes in the new English-language book are all “doable” and “the exotic ingredients aren’t so exotic anymore.”

She says that when she was growing up (“I was the only Arab kid at Century Public School,”), her Palestinian parents had to seek out ingredients at Italian grocery stores and a small Middle Eastern store on Kirkwood Avenue in order to make their traditional Middle Eastern dishes.

“Now the regular stuff — the tahini, the rosewater — are readily available in many grocery stores,” says Husseini. “And you can get everything at the Mid-East Food Centre on St. Laurent at Belfast.”

While some of the dishes “require time and love and patience,” Husseini says — “you don’t make the most amazing lamb shanks in 15 minutes” — most of the recipes are simple.

“A lot of people assume Middle Eastern is exotic or difficult. Then I make something in 15 minutes and they say ‘that’s it?’ When you’re prepared and you have your ingredients ready, cooking isn’t anything more than conducting.”

Here are five of Husseini’s favourites.

Baba Ghanouj Salad

Makes: 4 to 6 servings

  • 4 medium eggplants
  • 4 green onions, sliced thin (white parts only)
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, mashed
  • Juice of 1 lemon (or more)
  • Sea salt
  • 20 cherry tomatoes, seeded and sliced in quarters
  • ¼ cup (50 mL) parsley, finely chopped
  • ¼ cup (50 mL) fresh mint, finely chopped
  • ½ cup (125 mL) walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
  • Handful of pomegranate seeds, to garnish
  • Pomegranate molasses
  • Extra-virgin olive oil

1. Pierce eggplants all over with a fork and place them on a charcoal or gas grill over medium-high heat (or broil in the oven). Keep turning them evenly to char the skin. It will blacken and begin to collapse after 25 to 30 minutes. Remove and place in a colander on a rack to drain some of the juices. When cool enough, slice in half lengthwise. Peel away the charred skin and place in a colander to drain further.

2. Chop the eggplant into small chunks and place in a bowl.

3. Add the green onions, shallot, garlic, lemon juice and salt.

4. Lastly, add the tomatoes and toss gently, taking care not to mash the eggplant.

5. Sprinkle on the parsley and mint.

6. Spoon into small serving plates, then scatter the walnuts on top, garnish with the pomegranate seeds and drizzle a little pomegranate molasses on top. Drizzle with olive oil and serve immediately.

Hummus

Husseini says that she believes that some of the simplest dishes are the trickiest to make really well.

“Hummus is composed of few ingredients, but it is the delicate balance of each that creates the best results. The ultimate hummus is attainable if you soak the dried chickpeas overnight and cook them the following day. Removing the skins also ensures a creamier hummus.”

Makes: 4 to 6 servings

  • 1 cup (250 mL) dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in lots of cold water with 1 tbsp (15 mL) baking soda
  • ½ cup (125 mL) ice cubes
  • ¼ cup (50 mL) tahini
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • ¼ cup (50 mL) yogurt
  • ¼ cup (50 mL) lemon juice
  • Sea salt
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Paprika or cayenne pepper, to garnish

1. After soaking the chickpeas overnight, discard the soaking water and replace with new cold water. Place the chickpeas with the water in a saucepan over medium to medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Skim off any foam that comes to the surface. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook the chickpeas until tender, for approximately 1 hour.

2. When cool enough to handle, rub off as many skins as you can. Using a slotted spoon, remove ½ cup (125 mL) of cooked chickpeas for garnish. Scoop out remaining chickpeas and place them in a food processor.

3. Start the machine and add the ice cubes, tahini, garlic, yogurt and lemon juice. (The ice cools the hummus, helps break down the chickpeas and makes the hummus creamy.) Add the salt and taste, adjusting by adding more lemon juice if you like. The mixture should be creamy and a little runny. It will thicken when you put it in the fridge until it is ready to serve.

4. Spread the hummus onto small, shallow plates and use a spoon to make a deep groove. Drizzle on the olive oil. Garnish with the reserved chickpeas and a sprinkle of paprika. Serve with fresh, warm pita bread and plenty of vegetables for dipping.

Roasted Cauliflower with Citrus Tahini Sauce

Many Canadians she meets have had cauliflower only boiled, perhaps with cheese sauce, says Husseini. “I’m sorry, but that’s boring.”

Even if you think you don’t like cauliflower, you should try this delicious roasted version. Husseini says she also likes it the day after, cold from the fridge and rolled up in soft pita bread.

Makes: 4 servings

  • 1 head of cauliflower
  • ¼ cup (50 mL) olive oil
  • Sea salt
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • Zest and juice of half an orange (save some zest to garnish)
  • 1 cup (250 mL) water
  • ¾ cup (175 mL) tahini
  • 3 tbsp (50 mL) olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, mashed
  • 2 medium onions, sliced thin
  • ½ cup (125 mL) toasted pine nuts, to garnish
  • ¼ cup (50 mL) slivered pistachios, to garnish

1. Preheat oven to 425 F (220 C). Take the whole head of cauliflower and cut (core included) into 4 thick slices. Place on a large baking sheet, coat with oil and season with salt. Roast until golden and crisp and cooked through. It should take about 20 minutes. Turn over halfway through cooking time, being careful not to break the cauliflower.

2. Mix the lemon juice, orange juice and zest, water and tahini to make a creamy sauce and leave aside.

3. In a deep frying pan, heat the 3 tbsp (30 mL) olive oil and sauté the onions and garlic until light golden and soft. Pour the tahini sauce over the cooked onions and bring to a simmer until the flavours mingle and it thickens slightly. Taste to adjust seasonings.

4. Serve drizzled over the roasted cauliflower and garnish with toasted pine nuts, slivered pistachios and orange zest.

Moussaqa’a

Moussaqa’a in Arabic means “cold,” says Husseini. “This is how it best eaten. It is made with a little olive oil and is totally vegetarian.”

A traditional Arabian moussaqa’a, though, is made in a casserole dish, in layers. This is Husseini’s deconstructed version, which she says is simple to prepare because both the sauce and the eggplants can be prepared ahead of time, and assembled in minutes.

She admits that at a book launch in the Middle East, an older woman took great exception to her meddling with tradition.

“I gave her hug and explained that this was my updated version of my mother’s recipe. She finally relaxed and admitted how delicious it was.”

Makes: 12 servings

  • 3 large eggplants
  • ¼ cup (50 mL) olive oil and peanut oil mixture
  • 2 tbsp (25 mL) olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped fine
  • 6 cloves of garlic, sliced thin
  • 12 tomatoes, diced
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) allspice
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) cinnamon
  • 2 tbsp (25 mL) sugar
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) pomegranate molasses
  • Salt and pepper
  • About ¾ cup (175 mL) cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained if canned
  • ½ cup (125 mL) pine nuts, toasted
  • ½ cup (125 mL) chopped fresh mint

1. Preheat the oven to 450 F (230 C). Peel the eggplants and cut lengthwise into slices about ½-inch (2-cm) thick. Brush both sides of slices with the oil mixture and place on a baking sheet. Roast until golden brown, about 15 minutes in total, flipping them over halfway. Remove to cool completely.

2. In a large frying pan, heat 2 tbsp (25 mL) of olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft and translucent. Add the diced tomatoes, allspice, cinnamon, sugar, pomegranate molasses, salt and pepper. Allow to come to a boil. Add the drained chickpeas to the tomato sauce. Lower the heat and leave to simmer and thicken slightly (about 5 minutes). Lastly, stir in half the amount of pine nuts and set aside.

3. To serve, put one slice of roasted eggplant on a platter, spoon the chickpea sauce over the thicker side and folder over to cover the filling. Proceed with the other slices. Garnish with mint and the remaining toasted pine nuts.

4. Serve with a salad. Moussaqa’a can also be a great side dish with any grilled meat.

Lemony Lentil Soup with Swiss Chard

Husseini says this soup is what she liked to eat as a child, on rainy days in Ottawa. She makes it with du Puy lentils because they hold their shape, but says you can make it with any brown lentil. She likes to use red Swiss chard for its vibrant colour and lemony taste, but says you can substitute spinach.

The soup is topped with taklia “a classic Arabic tradition that makes many stews and soups even more fragrant and flavourful,” says Husseini.

Makes 6-8 servings

  • 1/4 cup (50 mL) olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 1 ½ cups (375 mL) du Puy lentils
  • 5 cups (1.25 L) chicken stock
  • 4 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 3 handfuls sliced Swiss chard
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) allspice
  • Salt and pepper
  • Taklia (recipe below)
  • Juice of 1 lemon or more

1. In a large pot, heat the olive oil. Add the onions and sauté until slightly soft.

2. Stir in the lentils. Pour in the stock, bringing up to a boil. Skim off any foam that floats to the surface.

3. After 5 minutes, add the diced potatoes and Swiss chard. Season with allspice and salt and pepper. Turn down heat and simmer until the potatoes and lentils are cooked.

4. Prepare the fragrant taklia (recipe below). Add it to the soup and leave to simmer for 5 minutes. Taste to see if it needs more salt and adjust the seasoning. Turn off the heat. Just before serving, pour in the lemon juice. Serve with nice crusty bread on the side and more lemon wedges.

Taklia

  • 2 tbsp (25 mL) olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • ¼ cup (50 mL) finely chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1. In a small frying pan, heat the olive oil and sauté the garlic for 1 minute until it perfumes the air.
  • 2. Add the cilantro and stir for an additional minute.

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