She is a deft writer who delivers recipes that call for readily available ingredients, and she trusts her readers' ingenuity and tastes, encouraging them to adjust seasonings and to "weigh with the eye." But at times she might put too much faith in their abilities. With little information on technique, it might be difficult to judge how much a sauce should be reduced or to make a Turkish almond and milk pudding, called keskul, perfectly smooth (even after taking an electric beater to it, which she recommends as a remedy for lumps of rice flour).
But more typically she walks readers through the essential basics of Middle Eastern cooking, such as how to roast eggplants, peel tomatoes, preserve lemons and make perfect couscous.
Even the most elaborate dishes are surprisingly easy to make. \o7Shaariya medfouna\f7\o7,\f7 is known as "buried in vermicelli." Roden calls it "a fabulous surprise dish," a chicken \o7tagine\f7 tucked under a mountain of vermicelli, a traditional Arab pasta. The broth for the \o7tagine\f7 is rich with saffron, ground ginger, cinnamon and cilantro.
The vermicelli is topped with rays of cinnamon, powdered sugar and fried almonds. It's a stunning dish that serves more than 10 people, and the most difficult part is chopping the onions.
My kitchen is humble: 3 feet of free counter space and not nearly enough room in my cupboards for all of my cooking equipment. But with Roden as a guide, I can turn out a meal fit for a sultan.
Eggplant and tomato salad
Total time: 1 hour, including cooling time
Servings: 6 to 8
Note: From "Arabesque" by Claudia Roden
2 to 3 eggplants (about 2 pounds)
Juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon
3 garlic cloves, crushed
4 tablespoons good-quality olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Large handful chopped
4 sprigs mint, chopped
4 scallions, finely sliced
4 plum tomatoes, unpeeled, diced
Handful of fresh pomegranate seeds (optional)
1. Prick the eggplants in a few places with a pointed knife to prevent them from exploding. Turn them over the flame of a gas burner or hot barbecue, or under the broiler, until the skin is charred all over (this gives them a distinctive smoky flavor) and they feel very soft when you press them. Alternatively, place them on a sheet of foil on an oven tray and roast them in the hottest preheated oven for 45 to 55 minutes, until the skins are wrinkled and they are very soft.
2. When cool enough to handle, peel and drop them into a strainer or colander with small holes. Press out as much of the water and juices as possible. While still in the colander, chop with a pointed knife, then mash with a fork or wooden spoon, letting the juices escape through the holes.
3. Mix the eggplant puree with the lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, parsley and mint. Spread the puree on a large, flat serving plate. Sprinkle with the scallions, tomatoes and pomegranate seeds, if using.
Each serving: 94 calories; 2 grams protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 7 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 153 mg. sodium.
Shaariya medfouna (Buried in vermicelli)
Total time: 2 hours, 50 minutes
Servings: 10 or more
Note: From "Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, & Lebanon" by Claudia Roden. This recipe can be cut in half. Orange blossom water is available at Middle Eastern markets and gourmet shops.
2 large whole chickens (4 1/2 pounds each)
4 large onions, chopped coarsely
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon, divided
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon saffron threads or powder
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1 1/4 stick) butter, divided
1 tablespoon clear honey
2 teaspoons orange blossom water (optional)
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 cup blanched almonds
1 1/2 tablespoons sunflower or vegetable oil
2 pounds vermicelli nests or any thin noodles
Powdered sugar (optional)
1. Use two deep pans and put one chicken into each. Into each pan, pour 2 1/4 cups water, bring to a boil and remove the scum; add two chopped onions, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, one-half teaspoon ginger and one-half teaspoon saffron. Add salt and pepper and simmer, covered, for about 1 hour, turning the chickens occasionally.
2. Lift out the chickens and, when cool enough to handle, remove the skin and bones and cut the meat into medium-size pieces.
3. Pour the chicken stock with the onions into one pan only and reduce it by boiling it down until it becomes a thick sauce, about 45 minutes. Skim off excess fat. Stir in 4 tablespoons (one-half stick) of butter, the honey and orange blossom water, if using, and cook a few minutes more. Taste; add salt and pepper if necessary. Add the parsley and cilantro, and return the chicken pieces to the sauce. All this can be done in advance and reheated when you are about to serve.
4. Fry the almonds in the oil until lightly browned, stirring, then drain them on paper towels. Coarsely chop, or crush them with a mortar and pestle.