For many Americans, the mere mention of Middle Eastern cuisine conjures the unpleasant image of questionable meat products sold on sticks from pushcarts. We think it's too spicy, that it's difficult to make, or that it's too rich and not good for us.
Most foreign cuisines we've grown accustomed to here in the United States are actually hybrids of what would normally be prepared in the country of origin and what the transplanted cook believes the American customer wants. Middle Eastern cuisine is no exception. It's complicated by the fact that we're talking about a huge region full of shifting boundaries and a wide variety of languages, religions and cultures.

My mother's family is Armenian. Both my mother's parents grew up with Armenian food that was influenced by the country they came from -- his from Iran, hers from Turkey. They're different cuisines, but with a lot of common ground between them. Both involve some dishes that take literally all day to make.

When I was a child and I visited my grandparents, I would often wake up early in the morning to find my grandmother and my great-grandmother already preparing dishes for that night's dinner.

Needless to say, this is totally impractical for most people -- myself included. However, not all Middle Eastern dishes are so time-consuming, and often the main ingredients and principles of a very complicated dish can be rearranged to fit a simpler, quicker dish.

This cuisine has a lot going for it. Like other Mediterranean cuisines, it tends to be very balanced in its distribution of starch, meat, dairy and vegetables. The emphasis on fresh vegetables and olive oil makes it inherently healthy.

One of the great myths about Middle Eastern food is that it's packed with loads and loads of garlic. This myth is aided and abetted by certain TV chefs who 'bam' their recipes to death with garlic. In reality, you can (and should) go easy on the garlic -- you want to be able to taste the other ingredients. Finally, you won't necessarily need to plan a trip to a specialty food store. A few common items in your larder can easily prepare you for the creation of quick and delicious Middle Eastern food.

  • Lemons (seems basic, and it is -- they couldn't be more essential.)
  • Garlic (in moderation!)
  • Flat leaf parsley (forget that curly stuff.)
  • Fresh mint (dried will do in a pinch; you can even use a mint tea bag -- just rip it open.)
  • Olive oil (extra virgin, but it doesn't have to be fancy.)
  • Tahini (this is the only ingredient that some people might have trouble finding, though it's unlikely -- most major supermarkets should have it.)
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Ground cumin
  • Ground coriander

Recipes
The yogurt cheese and baba ganoush are traditionally served with bread, but it's not necessary. Try them as a sauce for the chicken, serve them with crudit s or just serve them on the side.

The best thing you can do to make these dishes come out well is to plan ahead. The cheese must be started a day ahead -- why not marinate the chicken and make the baba ganoush a day ahead while you're at it? Notice that the processes are simple and you're using a lot of the same ingredients in all the dishes, which makes it especially easy.

The first dish is a more practical, less high-maintenance cousin of shish kebab.

Broiled Marinated Chicken Breast Fillets with Vegetables
This can also be grilled outside in the warmer months. Try to plan this one a day ahead.

Ingredients:
8 chicken breast fillets (one fillet is about a half a chicken breast)
3 medium onions, quartered
3 large green bell peppers, quartered
3 large tomatoes, quartered
12 crimini mushrooms, halved

The marinade:
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, crushed (you don't need to chop it)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 sprigs flat leaf parsley, rough chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Directions:
1. You will need two zip-close bags. Throw all the marinade ingredients into one zip-close bag and shake to mix. Pour a little less than half of the marinade into the second bag. Place your chicken in the first bag and your vegetables in the second. Marinate all day, or overnight if possible. An hour or two is better than nothing!

2. When ready to cook, take the chicken out of the bag and pat dry. Grill or broil the chicken until it's brown on one side and ready to turn. Add the vegetables for the second half of cooking.

3. The chicken should be well browned on both sides and firm to the touch. Before serving, let it stand and cool for a few minutes. Then slice it diagonally.

4. You want the vegetables to have some char on them, but you want them to be crisp -- not over-cooked and falling apart.

Makes 8 (1-fillet) servings.

Per 1-fillet serving: 12g carbs, 2.8g fiber, 17g protein, 11g total fat, 46mg cholesterol, 345mg sodium, 208 calories

Baba Ganoush
Ingredients:
2 medium eggplant
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (or to taste)
1/4 cup olive oil (or to taste)
1/2 cup tahini*
1 small clove garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)

Directions:
1. Cut eggplants in half lengthwise. Rub olive oil, salt and pepper on the cut sides. Place on a baking sheet cut sides down.

2. Bake at 325 degrees F for 1 hour or until eggplant skins are wrinkled and eggplants are starting to collapse. Cool.

3. Scoop out insides of eggplants into a blender and blend slowly, tasting as you go. Don't over-blend -- you want it to have a little texture. You should be able to taste the eggplant, and it should also have the bright flavor of lemon. Garlic should not overwhelm the flavor of the eggplant.

Makes 14 (1/2-cup) servings

Per 1/2-cup serving: 7.1g carbs, 0.5g fiber, 2g protein, 9g total fat, 0mg cholesterol, 90mg sodium, 108 calories

* Note: Tahini is sesame seed "paste." It is found in specialty shops or the ethnic section of supermarkets.

Yogurt Cheese
Ingredients:
1 pint plain yogurt (whole milk yogurt is extra tasty, but low-fat is fine too!)
2 teaspoons fresh mint, chopped
1/8 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 teaspoon olive oil

Directions:
1. Drain the yogurt in the fridge overnight through several thicknesses of cheesecloth or a clean dishtowel.

2. Spread cheese on a plate and sprinkle with salt and mint. Then drizzle with olive oil.

Makes 8 (1/4-cup) servings.

Per 1/4-cup serving: 5.3g carbs, 0g fiber, 4g protein, 1g total fat, 4mg cholesterol, 82mg sodium, 45 calories

Mediterranean Salad
You can modify this seasonally -- don't try to use tomatoes when they're out of season, for example. Try adding bell peppers, red cabbage or blanched green beans. Just make sure to use crunchy vegetables that will hold up well in the marinade.

For the salad:
Ingredients:
4 large cucumbers, peeled and cut into chunks
4 large tomatoes, cut into chunks
1 large red onion, sliced
1/2 cup feta cheese, cubed (if it's in brine, give it a rinse before cutting)
2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped

For the dressing:
Let the salad marinate in this mixture for at least 1 hour.

Ingredients:
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/4 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper (or to taste)

Directions:
Mix dressing ingredients in a large bowl and taste. Dressing should be tart. Adjust if necessary. Then add the vegetables and let stand at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours.

Makes 12 (1-cup) servings.

Per 1-cup servings: 6.9g carbs, 1.8g fiber, 2g protein, 6g total fat, 6mg cholesterol, 82mg sodium, 82 calories

Note: The recipe does not call for salt -- the feta should be salty enough. You can add a cup of canellini beans or chickpeas to this salad if you want a little more substance. You can also serve it on a bed of leafy greens.

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