A Time Before Tabbouleh

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I had been cooking for only a few years when, in 1972, a friend gave me “A Book of Middle Eastern Food,” by a woman named Claudia Roden. In my cooking life, there was no more important influence than that book.

Roden rose to prominence later than Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, the two grandes dames of mid-20th-century cooking in Britain. (David and Grigson helped Britons “fix” a cuisine that had gone horribly wrong because of war and the accompanying hardships.) But when Roden published “Middle Eastern Food” in 1968, she built on their influence, expanding — almost exploding — the vision of what was possible. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say there was effectively no hummus or tabbouleh before then. And suddenly there were not only those, but also rosewater, meat cooked with dates and phyllo dough.

The reason for Roden’s broader view is simple: She was born in Cairo to a family of Syrian Jews, left for school in Paris when she was 15 and was reunited with her parents and siblings in London, when the Suez crisis of 1956 chased the Jewish community out of Egypt. Her first book was inspired by the food of her childhood. Her research ultimately led her to write extensively about the foods of North Africa, Spain, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Her “Book of Jewish Food” is the most comprehensive work on the subject and, unlike many books on the topic, gives equal weight to the cooking of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews.

I wanted to cook with Roden for years, and finally, on a recent visit to London, I was invited to her home to do so. What to cook with someone who awes you?

Read the rest of this article and get the recipes here.

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Giving Lamb Legs

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The gleaming, massive lamb shank on these pages, impressive though it may be, is not the most effective way to serve what amounts to the shin and ankle of a lamb.

It’s glorious, for sure, but it has a number of disadvantages, the first of which is that a small-to-moderate lamb shank weighs in at more than a pound, a nice serving size in the ’70s (or the Middle Ages) but a bit macho for most of us these days. The second is that it’s difficult to cook — size alone makes it awkward, and penetration of flavors is an issue. It’s difficult to eat. And finally, that same graphic quality that makes for such a gorgeous photo reminds some people more of its source than they’d like.

Besides, I’ve slowly begun to realize that my most successful lamb dishes were made from what was left over from a meal of lamb shanks. A couple of months ago, when braising season began, I cooked two sizable lamb shanks and, of course, enjoyed them. But I really got into it over the following couple of nights when I wound up using them to create a marvelous ragù and then transformed the ragù into a lamb-tomato-bean stew that could not have been much better.

Read the rest of the column and get the recipes here.