For dinner last Sabbath, I cooked mostly Palestinian.
I made potatoes roasted with lemon, dill and scallions, green beans stewed with olive oil, tomato and onions, and meatballs in a tamarind tomato sauce, all from cookbooks by Joudie Kalla. (I also served a smoke-roasted chicken with lemon, fresh bay leaves and garlic, arugula salad, and store-bought babka, because babka goes with everything.)
The potato dish is from Baladi, Kalla’s second cookbook. I used large yellow potatoes without peeling them. The genius of the recipe is that you roast the potatoes with half the herbs, lemon juice and a little flour until they are shiny and crisp. Then, just before serving, you toss them with the other half of the herbs. The flavors of the cooked and raw herbs hit you in alternating bites. There’s a lot going on in this dish, for potatoes.
The green beans, from Kalla’s first cookbook, Palestine on a Plate, are cooked until tender, then added to a mixture of tomato, garlic, chili and onions, which are sautéed in many glugs of olive oil. The recipe calls for two heads of garlic, chopped. I checked and rechecked to make sure Kalla didn’t mean two cloves. She didn’t. The acid in the tomato sauce stops the beans from overcooking, and all that oil, garlic, stewed onions and chili gives them a meaty depth and richness. It’s pure vegan porn.
For the meatballs, from the Baladi cookbook, I substituted ground turkey and beef for lamb. (As a recovering goat owner, I still get queasy eating their close cousins. That of course is a big problem when you’re cooking your way through a Palestinian cookbook. So sue me.) The real flavor here comes from the six caramelized onions and the tamarind-tomato sauce, which after a short simmer completely suffuses the meat and turns the whole dish into something rich and exotic. Never mind lamb: you could make this with eggplant and it would still be thrilling.
I’ve been trying to describe to friends the power of these cookbooks. Then, this past weekend, I came across this quote from Edward Said, which accompanied an exhibit on refugees by the Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei.
“The pathos of exile is the loss of contact with the solidity and satisfaction of earth,” Said wrote.
Immediately I thought of Baladi. Recipe after recipe connects me with the “solidity and satisfaction” of the land. From the unholy mess of politics and violence in Israel and Palestine, Kalla zeros in on what is pure, beloved and enduringly beautiful to most of the people who live there, as well as to those who have left.
Wouldn’t it be nice if one day the Jews and Arabs fighting over that bit of earth figure out a way to share its many satisfactions? Here’s the truth, and it’s a truth beyond words, beyond history, beyond argument: If they all really wanted to find a way to share, they could.