It’s no secret that I love the flavors and the ingredients of Middle Eastern cooking. Now I know that “Middle Eastern” is a wide generalization, but I feel myself (and my belly) drawn to that region of the world. A glance at my cookbook collection would confirm this - I have numerous books about the cuisine of Israel, Lebanon, Morocco and Persia. I often like to put my own spin on the recipes found on the pages, while other times, I follow an intricate recipe as it is written.
Often, the difficulty with cooking the cuisine of a faraway land is finding the right ingredients. With the internet, we’re able to get nearly anything from all areas of the world, and I’ve definitely taken advantage of this way of securing ingredients. But I really enjoy the sights and sounds of a market, especially one where I don’t speak the language and I’m not familiar with what I’ll find from the vendors. When my family travels abroad, we always go to the local markets - the smells of the spices are intoxicating! Luckily, living in close proximity to Washington, DC, I don’t need to travel too far to shop in an ethnic marketplace.
Last weekend, our plans took us to the suburbs of DC. The traffic is always burdensome, there are strip malls, one after another, lining the wide streets that lead into our nation’s capital. Normally, these strip malls wouldn’t be of interest to me, however I was determined to get to a particular one in Rockville. I’d heard about a Persian restaurant and grocery store, the woman who had clued me this place is of Persian descent, so I trusted her recommendation. The destination, Yekta, was like winning the lottery for me - a dream come true!
Entering this market, I knew that I wanted to buy lots of ingredients that I enjoy using in my recipes. I didn’t know what to expect, but what I found was amazing! There were spices and dried herbs, huge jugs of imported tahini, a large table covered in a variety of flavors of baklava, dried fruits, nuts, and Middle Eastern flatbreads - some as large as a small surfboard! A cooler case was full of different cheeses and yogurts, thick Labne and pungent Bulgarian feta. The store isn’t large, but there’s a dizzying array of items - I was like a kid in a candy store…
So what did I buy and how did it make its way into this week’s recipe? I bought a large jar of Lebanese tahini, which has a different taste (in my opinion) to the Ethiopian tahini that I regularly consume. I needed a new bottle of pomegranate molasses and was glad to find a few brands that I’d never seen before. I let my daughter choose a flatbread to eat with the Bulgarian feta that my husband insisted we buy. A few tins of stuffed grape leaves, a package of fresh rose water-infused baklava, and a container of Labne also made it into my shopping basket.
Today’s recipe is a simple salad, influenced by the flavors and the colors found in the Persian market. It’s a simple dish of charred sweet potato and cauliflower, tossed together with some fresh herbs, and covered in a delicious tahini and pomegranate molasses dressing. The flavors are tangy, salty, and sweet - the perfect combination. This salad will definitely make its way into many of my menus - great for a picnic or a make-ahead meal.
I encourage you to explore food markets as a way to learn about different cultures and cuisines. Experiment with unfamiliar ingredients - maybe you’ll surprise yourself and find some new favorites! I’m already planning my next visit to Yekta, I can’t wait to try something new when I’m there. Who wants to come along with me?
Wishing you a relaxing weekend, full of delicious food, health & wellness.
Tangy Tahini Salad with Charred Veggies & Fresh Herbs
Ingredients: (note - use organic whenever possible)
1 head cauliflower
1 large or 2 medium sweet potatoes
3 T sunflower seed oil (or other neutral oil), divided
1 bunch cilantro
1/4 C tahini
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 t pomegranate molasses
1/2 t ground sumac
sea salt, to taste
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Prepare vegetables for roasting. Remove the stem/core from the cauliflower and chop into small florets. Place in a colander and rinse thoroughly under water to remove any debris. Shake to remove as much water as possible, then pour onto a large rimmed sheet pan. Drizzle with 1.5 T sunflower oil and toss to coat the cauliflower with the oil. Roast for 25 minutes, or until golden brown and charring on the edges. Remove from the oven and pour into a large mixing bowl.
While the cauliflower is roasting, cut the sweet potato into 1-inch dice. Once the cauliflower has finished roasting and has been removed from the sheet pan, place the diced sweet potato onto the sheet pan, drizzle with the remaining 1.5 T sunflower seed oil and roast for 25-30 minutes. Toss the sweet potatoes occasionally to allow them to brown evenly. Remove from the oven and add to the mixing bowl with the cauliflower.
Cut the scallions into thin slices, coarsely chop the cilantro (leaves & tender stems). Add the scallions and 1 C of the cilantro to the mixing bowl with the cauliflower and sweet potato.
In a small mixing bowl, combine the tahini, extra-virgin olive oil, and lemon juice. Use a fork or a small whisk to make a smooth sauce. Add the pomegranate molasses and sumac. Taste the mixture, adjust the seasoning by adding sea salt, to taste. Pour the sauce into the large mixing bowl and gently toss to coat the vegetables and herbs with the tahini sauce.
Serve the salad at room temperature or slightly warm, topped with the remaining chopped cilantro.
recipe yields 4-5 servings
double the recipe, if necessary; substitute winter squash for the sweet potato, or broccoli for the cauliflower, if desired
leftovers keep well, chilled in a covered container, for 2-3 days