3 festive Mideast feasts you'll go absolutely nuts over!
By Faye Levy
Everyone is familiar with Chinese almond chicken and with pesto made with pine nuts, but nuts can contribute enormously to countless other dishes. I've had wonderful nut-crusted fish with lemon butter sauce in Paris and delicious pistachio-studded lamb kebabs in Gaziantep, Turkey. Nut-based sauces are a category in themselves, including such favorites as Spanish romesco sauce with roasted peppers, almonds and hazelnuts; Mexican mole poblano with almonds; Provencal and Turkish garlic-walnut sauces; and Persian walnut pomegranate sauce.
Adding nuts is a surefire way to make your salads more interesting. Just a small sprinkling of toasted nuts turns a green salad or diced vegetable salad into a welcome appetizer.
A standard Mediterranean vegetable salad of diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onion and parsley is transformed with warm toasted walnuts and walnut oil in the dressing. (Also add some chopped salad greens, which carry the flavor of the nut oil well.)
It helps to vary the nuts you use to keep the salads interesting, alternating toasted almonds, pistachios, cashews, pecans and hazelnuts, and pair them with a matching nut oil when you have it or with fruity extra virgin olive oil.
One of the best cabbage salads I ever tasted, made by a neighbor, was as simple as could be to put together -- coleslaw mix (shredded cabbage with carrot) combined with vinaigrette dressing flavored with soy sauce and a touch of sugar. It owed its excellence to a generous garnish of toasted cashews.
Sauteed almonds are a time-honored French garnish for buttery green beans, but they and other nuts make just about any vegetable medley festive. An Israeli friend uses a combination of toasted slivered almonds and sauteed onions to enhance all sorts of vegetables, whether steamed or stir-fried. One delicious almond-enhanced dish features Brussels sprouts, green beans, water chestnuts and edamame (green soy beans).
Rice may be the food that benefits the most from being matched with nuts. Embellishing rice with nuts is a longstanding culinary custom in India. Nuts are the garnish de rigueur for holiday and special occasion rice dishes in the Mideast, where bulgur wheat also benefits from being dressed up this way. I've found the same is true for just about any grain, as well as for couscous and other forms of pasta. Indeed, when I have a buttery dish of couscous topped with toasted hazelnuts, pine nuts and dried apricots, it is so tasty and satisfying that I don't even need dessert!
RICE STUFFING WITH TOASTED NUTS AND SPICED MEAT
MAKES 4 or 5 servings as a side dish or about 5 to 5 1/2 cups, enough to stuff 1 chicken with extra to serve separately
In the Mideast, this sumptuous pilaf is the most popular stuffing for all sorts of poultry, from quail to turkey to whole roasted lamb. When it's not baked inside a bird, it's served as a bed for roasted poultry or meat and is also loved as a main course. The most festive versions include several kinds of nuts.
Most often the rice is flavored with sauteed ground lamb or beef, but chicken giblets are another option, as in a Louisiana specialty known as dirty rice. I particularly enjoyed a rich rendition I tasted in Turkey as an accompaniment for a braised whole chicken, where the rice was enriched with a bit of lamb and with plenty of pine nuts and currants.
Heat 2 to 3 tablespoons oil or margartine in a deep saute pan or stew pan. Add onion and saute over medium heat for 5 minutes or until softened. Add meat, allspice and cinnamon, and saute, stirring to separate meat into small pieces, until it browns lightly.
Add rice and saute, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add broth, salt and pepper. Stir once and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat, without stirring, for 18 minutes, or until rice is just tender. Dot with remaining tablespoon margarine, if using. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes or until ready to serve.
Gently fluff rice with a fork. Taste and adjust seasoning. Lightly fold in two thirds of the toasted nuts. Serve hot, topped with remaining nuts.
CHICKEN IN PERSIAN POMEGRANATE WALNUT SAUCE
MAKES 4 servings
This dish is one of the glories of the Persian kitchen. Its charm stems from the luxurious walnut sauce in which the chicken gently cooks, served in generous amounts. Although its exotic flavor and slightly chunky texture are different from common American and European sauces, it is easy to love. The stew's time-honored partner is Basmati rice.
If you prefer a smoother sauce, add the optional flour in the recipe. For extra color, garnish the chicken with pomegranate seeds or with chopped parsley and a few toasted walnuts. The sauce is also delicious with turkey.
You can use pomegranate juice or the concentrated form of pomegranate paste, also called pomegranate molasses, which you can find at Mediterranean and Middle Eastern markets and gourmet shops. Substitute cranberry juice if you can't find pomegranate.
Heat oil in a heavy, wide casserole or Dutch oven. Add chicken in batches and saute over medium-high heat until golden brown. Remove chicken pieces to a plate as they brown. Discard fat from pan, leaving 1 to 2 tablespoons.
Add onion to pan and saute over medium heat for 7 minutes or until golden. Meanwhile, finely chop walnuts with pulsing motion of food processor. Reduce heat under onion pan to low. Stir in flour, then walnuts and cook over low heat, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in pomegranate juice and 1/2 cup water, or pomegranate paste and 1 1/2 cups water, and bring to a simmer, stirring.
Add chicken and any juices on plate to pan. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat, turning occasionally, about 35 minutes for breast pieces or 40 to 45 minutes for leg and thigh pieces, or until chicken is tender. Remove chicken from pan. Add tomato paste and cardamom to sauce and simmer until thickened to your taste.
Taste, adjust seasoning and add lemon juice and sugar if needed. If you like, whisk in a few more teaspoons pomegranate juice or paste. Return chicken to sauce and heat through. Serve hot, garnished if you like with pomegranate seeds, parsley, walnuts or all three.
FAST AND FESTIVE COUSCOUS WITH HAZELNUTS, PINE NUTS AND DRIED FRUIT
MAKES 4 servings
This couscous makes a lovely side dish and can be made at a moment's notice. It's great with turkey, chicken, lamb, veal and baked or stewed vegetables.
Bring broth and 1/2 cup water to a boil in a small saucepan. Stir in margarine or olive oil, followed by couscous, green onion, currants and apricots, and return barely to a boil. Cover pan. Remove from heat and let stand for 5 minutes. Taste for salt; add a little pepper and cayenne. Serve sprinkled with pine nuts and hazelnuts.
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Faye Levy is the author of "Feast from the Mideast."