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Culture Club : GREAT HOME COOKS : Grape Leaves and Green Almonds

April 29, 1993|KATHIE JENKINS

Food is never in short supply at Rosanna Nseir's alterations shop in Tarzana. Maybe that's why business is so good.

"Here, try one of these," Nseir says, offering one steady customer a homemade sarma. "See," she continues, displaying a heaping plate of the shiny green rolls. "They're fresh. I was up until midnight making them."

The customer hesitates, mumbling something about a diet.

"Go ahead," she insists, "they're small."

The customer takes a bite and smiles.

"Have another," Nseir says. "They're good for you."

Nseir, an Armenian who grew up in Lebanon, never cooked until she got married. Even then, she did it only because it was expected of her.

"At first I used to make easy stuff, things you didn't really have to cook," she says.

Yogurt was her first project--it's a steady part of the Lebanese diet. She continues to make two gallons every week. Half of every batch gets spooned into a cheesecloth; it strains for 24 hours and turns into lebneh (thickened yogurt).

"A typical Lebanese breakfast is lebneh , green olives and pita bread," Nseir explains. "My husband eats it every day."

Once she started cooking, it didn't take her long to find out she was good at it. Her mother is a good cook. So is her father. "It runs in the family," she says with a laugh. The Lebanese-Armenian dishes she grew up on-- kibbeh , sarma , stuffed eggplant--came easy. The challenge was making baba ghannouj , tabbouleh and hummus good enough to please her Lebanese mother-in-law.

"Tabbouleh, hummus , mutabbal , baba ghannouj and lebneh are always supposed to be on the table," she says, "along with a plate of fresh vegetables such as romaine lettuce, green onions, radishes and green peppers."

When war broke out in Lebanon, Nseir and her husband decided it was time to leave. "It was getting too dangerous, too hard to live," she says. "We had no electricity or water, practically no food, and we were scared to leave the house because of the shelling and bombing." By that time the couple also had a 5-year-old daughter to worry about.

In 1978 the Nseirs arrived in Hollywood and settled, as she put it, "with all the other Armenians and Lebanese." Their diet didn't change all that much with the move to California; for this Nseir gives thanks to Ron's Market. The Armenian-owned store stocks the familiar fruits and vegetables Nseir grew up on--everything from grape leaves (for sarmas ) to fresh green almonds. "I wash and salt them, then we eat them as a snack," Nseir says, "like a potato chip."

Now living in Tarzana, a block from her shop, Frances Alterations (she never bothered to change the name when she bought the business from a woman named Frances), Nseir feeds a steady stream of friends and relatives who constantly drop by. She's even been known to close the shop to run home and feed a visitor.

One thing Nseir does not do is look up recipes in cookbooks--she doesn't own a single one. "I just know what I am doing," she says, pointing to her head. "It's in the computer."

At first we thought someone sneaked a few drops of Liquid Smoke into the Baba Ghannouj. But the amazing smoky flavor simply comes from roasting the eggplant over a gas burner.

BABA GHANNOUJ 1 (1-pound) eggplant 2 cloves garlic, crushed Salt Juice 2 lemons 5 tablespoons tahineh (sesame paste) Cayenne pepper 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped Extra-virgin olive oil, optional Toasted pita bread, optional

Sliced fresh vegetables, such as tomatoes, radishes, cucumber, green onions and romaine lettuce, optional

Set eggplant on open flame of gas burner or on grill on stove top. Roast 5 to 10 minutes on 1 side, until well charred. Turn and roast 5 to 10 minutes more. When well charred on all sides, drop eggplant in bowl of cold water. Let stand 5 to 10 minutes and peel.

Put peeled eggplant in clean bowl and mash thoroughly.

Mix garlic to taste, 1/2 teaspoon salt and lemon juice in small bowl. Stir into eggplant mixture. Stir and add tahineh. If mixture is too thick, add more lemon juice. Season to taste with cayenne pepper. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Drizzle with olive oil to taste.

Serve with toasted pita bread and plate of fresh vegetables. Makes 12 servings.

Each serving contains about: 40 calories; 30 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.42 gram fiber.

Note: Tahineh is available at health food or Middle Eastern markets.

This recipe not only is a good way to enjoy whole fava beans, but it also eliminates the tedious job of double - shucking. The beans are even better the second day--and drizzling the olive oil is a must.

FRESH FAVA BEANS WITH YOGURT 1 1/2 pounds fresh fava beans 1/4 cup olive oil 1 large onion, chopped 1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce 1 teaspoon salt 16 ounces yogurt 3 cloves garlic, mashed Extra-virgin olive oil Pita bread, optional

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