United Talent Agency
Elise Bellin, Librarian of the Islamic Resource Center, wrote this book review as part of an ongoing series that focuses on a range of books within the IRC collection as a service to the community.
Olives, Lemons & Za’atar: The Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking
Taste of Beirut: Delicious Lebanese Recipes From Classics to Contemporary to Mezzes And More
Taste of Beirut: Delicious Lebanese Recipes From Classics to Contemporary to Mezzes And More by Joumana Accad (2014)
Olives, Lemons & Za’atar: The Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking by Rawia Bishara (2014)
Today’s review is something of a two-for-one special. I apologize, but that might make this a little long. In order to review both Olives, Lemons & Za’atar and Taste of Beirut, I felt that more than simply reading the books was necessary. In order to get a good sense of the books, I took a fieldtrip to the grocery store and kitchen to find out how they stack up.
In studying the first book, Olives, Lemons & Za’atar, I discovered a couple of issues. Most of the recipes require readers to switch back and forth between at least one or two additional recipes from the one being done as many of the recipes share some of the same pieces with others and, rather than repeat themselves, they wrote it once in a section that seemed to make sense to the author and then referred to it throughout by the page number. I believe the most I found was five page numbers referred to in a recipe’s ingredients list. Having to refer back to a single recipe, two at the most, is mostly forgivable and relatively expected. Five is almost unimaginable.
This however brings me to another issue with the book. There was an entire recipe that was repeated (under a different name and in a different section but almost word for word identical). One would assume, especially for a book that likes to only write a section once and then exhaustively go back to it in other recipes that repetition of any kind would have been strictly and assiduously avoided. I guess an entire page was missed in the editing.
The problems with Taste of Beirut were a little more along the lines of vagueness and a need for periods and/or paragraphs… in other words they could use some format editing. Sentences would include several steps with no more of a break than a series of commas and when it comes to things like referring back to a location didn’t bother with page numbers, only chapters. In the case of the recipe I made, it didn’t even bother with temperature for frying and I question one or two amounts.
Both books included beautiful full-color pictures. Olives, Lemons & Za’atar was a little easier to wield as it was a heavy duty hardcover book with a very nice spine, whereas Taste of Beirut was a thick paperback without much in the way of bendability in the spine so I had to use a cookbook holder with a clear faceplate to hold it open while operating lest it continually close back up. Olives, Lemons & Za’atar was beautifully bound. The cover had some amount of texture and the pages were sturdy enough to hold up to a decent amount of kitchen use. Taste of Beirut on the other hand was paperback. It allows for its contents to be sold at a slightly more affordable price. It also looks less like a traditional cookbook and more like a beautiful presentation with pictures that flow from the first page of a recipe somewhat into the second page. It also has very nice color-coded section divider tabs printed on the pages for easy perusal by type.
Now that we have the books themselves analyzed, it’s time to look at the recipes. I tried to go fairly simple. For the first title, I chose a Cauliflower Salad and, due to the nature of the book, also ended up making a Thick Tahini Sauce. For the second title, I made Zucchini Fritters.
Personally, I love cauliflower and so does my family. It is a straightforward vegetable that is nonetheless versatile. That made the first dish a reasonable choice. The ingredients in the recipe were relatively easy to come by. All it required was cauliflower, corn oil for frying (I used extra virgin olive oil), the aforementioned tahini sauce, pomegranate molasses, and some chopped fresh parsley for garnish. The instructions were quite straight forward. After a couple minutes of boiling the cauliflower in water and then draining it, I was to either fry the cauliflower in batches or, as I did, cook them on a sheet pan for a few minutes. The oven I used isn’t always the most regular, so I had to cook it longer and at a higher temperature than it asked for. I also found that the cauliflower on basting absorbed a lot of oil but later expelled some of it on the sheet. The tahini sauce was fairly easy as well. So long as I had the ingredients, which are readily available at my local grocery store, it was a short trip over to the food processer to blend them all together. Then it was just a matter of drizzling the tahini and pomegranate sauces over the cauliflower and sprinkling it with parsley for a little added color.
Zucchini is also a family favorite. If it were later in the year when these grow naturally in our region, I would have headed over to the local farmer’s stand a few streets down from our house and picked up a couple for this recipe. As it stands, the local grocer had plenty nice looking ones to use. I haven’t done very many fritters, but these looked nice enough. It used eggs, grated zucchini or its pulp, a whole cup of chopped parsley, onion, garlic paste, salt and pepper to taste, and for some reason a whole cup of olive oil. Maybe it expected me to deep fry them. I don’t know. It didn’t say. I tried to fry them as they said, but it quickly became obvious that something wasn’t quite right and after those two cooled It was also obvious that they were overly greasy. I ended up scrapping that method and cooking the fritters in muffin tins. It would have been nice to have confirmation of that and temperatures, but they weren’t given.
As far as flavor goes, the sauces from the first one really helped both dishes. Without it, there just wasn’t as much flavor as I am used to. It was either that or I would have had to salt them. The books do have a lot of variety of recipes though and I was tempted to do more than one of them. I didn’t do the egg recipe, for instance, that one reviewer swears is life changing in the Olives, Lemons & Za’atar. I instead chose something that wouldn’t force me to get a bunch of seasonings that I might not use as much as others. There are definitely dishes in there that would pack more of a punch. There were also more complex and/or thematic choices. Mine were chosen out of a matter of convenience. I will assay that my first title definitely had a more professional feel to it, which is saying a lot for a stay at home mom turned restauranteur and teacher. And no matter their flaws, both will give you a good, solid look at Middle Eastern cooking.
Founded in 2010, the Islamic Resource Center (IRC) is the first Islamic public lending library in Wisconsin. The IRC aims to provide resources to educators, students, health professionals, interfaith groups, and any members of the Milwaukee community that want an accurate understanding of the Islamic faith, its practices, and its people.