Bring Middle Eastern cuisine to your holiday table

Millions of Muslims, Christians and Jews will be observing holidays this month. Mawlid an-Nabi, the holiday commemorating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, is on Dec. 11, and Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, begins on the 24th, which is also Christmas Eve. Whatever you’ll be celebrating, make your food a bit tastier this December with some Middle Eastern flavor. Here are three simple and delicious recipes that are familiar enough to be comfort food but also include a spice or two to kick things up.

Illustrations by Blair Gauntt

Roasted Rack of Lamb with Cumin and Coriander

Serves 4

Rack of lamb is one of my favorite foods. Its rich, slightly gamey flavor is the dictionary definition of meat. Luckily it is also one of the easiest things to cook. Brown it quickly in a hot pan, roast it in the oven for twenty to thirty minutes and you are good to go. Once the meat is cooked, be sure to let it rest for 10 minutes before you slice into it. If you cut too soon, juices will run out of the meat, making it a bit dry. Honestly, it’s so good, it really doesn’t need any other ingredients, but to make it even better, we’re rubbing it with cumin and coriander and serving it with a cilantro-lime sauce that will take less than five minutes to make in a blender.

For the Cilantro-Lime Sauce:

• 1 bunch cilantro
• 1-2 cloves of garlic
• 1 small dry red chili, such as Thai bird (2 or 3 if you want it hotter)
• 1 teaspoon kosher salt (extra for seasoning)
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• Juice of 1 lime

•Place all of the sauce ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. If needed, add a touch of water to get the process started. Taste the sauce and add more salt if necessary.

For the Lamb:

• 4 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
• 2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
• 2 tablespoons kosher salt
• 2 racks of lamb
• 2 tablespoons olive oil

•Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

•In a small sauté pan, with no oil, toast the cumin and coriander seeds over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, moving them constantly to be sure they don’t burn. (You can skip this step, and the spices will still be delicious, but they’ll be a bit more vibrant if you toast them.) Let the spices cool a bit before moving to the next step.

•Place the cumin and coriander in a spice grinder and grind them very briefly. You don’t want a fine powder. Leave the spices a bit chunky. Then move the spices to a bowl and add the kosher salt.

•Dry the racks of lamb with paper towel. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large sauté pan. When the oil is hot, add the racks of lamb, meat side down, and let them brown. Then flip over and brown the second side briefly. Remove the lamb from the heat and let racks cool slightly so you can handle them. Keep the pan for the next step.

•Season the lamb with the spice-salt mixture and return it the pan, meat side up. Put the pan in the oven and let the lamb roast for 20 to 25 minutes.

•Move the lamb to a plate and cover it loosely with foil. Let it rest for 10 minutes.

•Slice the lamb and serve it with the cilantro-lime sauce.

Okra in Tomato Sauce

Serves 4

We usually associate okra with the American South, but it is one of the most beloved vegetables in the Middle East, where it is called bamiya. American cooks above the Mason-Dixon Line are often intimidated by okra’s reputed sliminess. Cooked properly, that is not a problem. I suggest stewing it with tomatoes and garlic, and a bit of cumin to echo the flavor of the lamb.

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• ½ large onion, thinly sliced
• 1 pound okra
• 2 cloves garlic, sliced
• 1 tablespoon ground cumin
• 14.5-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, chopped or crushed
• 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
• 2 teaspoons kosher salt
• ¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

•Trim a small amount off of the stem end of the okra, being careful not to expose the inside of the vegetable. (Not exposing the inside will prevent the okra from becoming slimy during cooking.)

•Heat the olive oil in a large casserole or Dutch oven.

•Add the onions and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes.

•Add the okra to the pan and continue to cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes.

•Add the garlic and cumin and cook for another minute. Then add the canned tomatoes, lemon juice and salt.

•Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

•Stir in the parsley and enjoy.


Makes 20-30

Jews traditionally eat fried foods during Hanukkah. For Middle Eastern Jews, that means zalabiya, the Arab world’s answer to the beignet. Mix flour, water and yeast, let the dough rest for about an hour, and fry away. The traditional way to finish the zalabiya is to soak the fritters in a sugar syrup, but that makes them a bit soggy for my taste. Instead, I sprinkle them with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Be careful, they’re addictive.

For the Cinnamon Sugar:

• ¼ cup powdered sugar
• 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

•Mix the powdered sugar and cinnamon in a bowl and set aside until the fritters are ready.

For the Fritter Batter:

• 3 cups all-purpose flour
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 package (or 1 tablespoon) instant dry yeast
• 2 ¼ cups warm water
• Vegetable oil, for frying

•In a large bowl, mix the flour, salt and yeast. Then whisk in the water and continue to stir until the batter is completely smooth. Then cover the bowl and let the batter rest in a warm place for an hour.

•Place three inches of oil in a deep pot and heat to 375 degrees.

•Using two tablespoons, scoop the batter into the oil and fry, turning occasionally until crispy and golden brown. Do this in batches so you don’t overcrowd the pot.

•Using a slotted spoon, remove the fritters from the oil and transfer them to a plate lined with paper towels.

•Dust the fritters generously with the cinnamon sugar and enjoy.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 211.

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