Grandmas and moms are quick—that’s a fact. Try catching up with them in the kitchen; good luck to you.
When Julie Ann Sageer was rediscovering Lebanese family recipes with the help of her quick-as-lightning mother, she would have to tell her, “Freeze frame your hands!” so she could see what she doing.
That handiwork practiced over years of cooking, “how things are pinched, how things are rolled,” as Sageer explained, is key to Lebanese cuisine. But blink and you’ll miss those family secrets.
Sageer shares that knowledge, passed down for generations, in her cookbook, “Julie Taboulie’s Lebanese Kitchen: Authentic Recipes for Fresh and Flavorful Mediterranean Home Cooking.” ($29.99)
Here’s something else about many moms when it comes to their first-generation American progeny: They don’t hesitate to throw them out of the kitchen. Study, clean up the house—do anything else but hang out in the kitchen. Sageer was lucky enough to have a mother who generously taught her. And now, as first-, second-, or third-generation Americans badger their mothers and grandmothers to teach them the ways of Lebanese or Middle Eastern cooking, the matriarchs tell them: “Go watch Julie Taboulie!”
True to Sageer’s mission of teaching authentic recipes in an accessible way, she has written a cookbook in a warm, guiding voice, with careful, thorough instructions. After chatting with her, I decided to make a couple of her favorites: one was her sitto’s (maternal grandmother’s) potato salad, colorful with purple potatoes, and pungent and herbal all at once with the flavors of garlic and mint, coupled with the brightening lift of lemon juice and olive oil. Simple, mayo-free, and delicious, it is perfect for summer gatherings or picnics.
For a more advanced recipe, I thought I’d try one of the kibbeh—a mixture of bulgur wheat and ground lamb, often shaped into oblong, stuffed meatballs, of which there are many varieties in Lebanon (and there’s one variety that’s not even stuffed but left hollow).
I tried my hand at the Kibbeh Kbebib. From the get-go, it struck me that you have to really, really, really love someone to make these meatballs for them. It involves making an exterior shell from lamb, bulgur wheat, and grated onion (I grated the latter by hand and cried a few tears); widening the shell ever so carefully from the inside, without breaking it; then stuffing it with lamb, pine nuts, onion, allspice, and mint. Sageer patiently gives all the tips and tricks the dish requires, accompanied by photos for illustration purposes. (The process involves ice cubes and iced water—who knew?)
It is all worth it in the end, to get that crispy, toothsome exterior and that wonderful, minty, nutty lamb stuffing inside.
There is so much more that beckons: fatteh hummus, salmon and saffron stew, stuffed baby eggplants, yogurt-mint soup with lamb dumplings, and desserts perfumed with orange blossom or rose water.
Some of the recipes came from Sageer asking her mother, “What did Sitto used to make?” And that’s maybe why so many times, people have come up to her and told her, “It’s just like my grandmother’s cooking.”
“It’s the biggest compliment,” she said.
For Sageer, who grew up in upstate New York and had never been to Lebanon until she visited at age 30, it’s not just about cooking. She said, “You get closer to your culture, your roots, your family, and you’re able to carry on those traditions for your family and the next generations to come. So if you don’t do it, who’s going to do it?”
See Julie Ann Sageer’s recipes:
Kibbeh Kbekib (Meat and Bulgur Spheres Stuffed With Lamb-Pine Nut Filling)