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Stephen Fries: Nader Brings Lebanese Family Favorites to the Table

posted on: Jun 7, 2020

Stephen Fries: Nader Brings Lebanese Family Favorites to the Table



Born in Winsted in 1934, he is a consumer advocate, lawyer, author, Princeton and Harvard graduate, began his career as a lawyer in Hartford in 1958, and lectured on history and government at the University of Hartford.

Ralph Nader is best known for his social critiques and his efforts to increase government and corporate accountability, but what I was surprised to learn was his lifelong commitment to healthful eating, plus his family’s involvement in the restaurant business.

Born to Lebanese parents, Nader’s appreciation for food began at an early age when his parents, Rose and Nathra, owned a restaurant and bakery, Highland Arms, on Main Street in Winsted. His restaurant experience and passion for good food might be why later in life he served in the Army as a cook.

His family frowned on processed foods and ate only a moderate amount of lean red meat. Today, the Mediterranean diet is considered one of the most healthful diets, but in the 1930s and ’40s of Nader’s youth it was considered strange. Nader’s mother served her family homemade, healthful dishes from her native Lebanon. Not only did she feed them well, but took the time to discuss and explain her approach to food; she used the family meals to connect her children to the traditions of their ancestors.

So what inspired this man of many talents to write, “The Ralph Nader and Family Cookbook: Classic Recipes from Lebanon and Beyond” (2020, Akashic Books, $24.95)? He says in the book’s introduction, “One reason goes back many years — people always asking me what I eat, prompted in part by my work on food safety laws. Another was the remarkable responses to the 1991 collection of recipes and wisdom — ‘food for thought’ — that my parents compiled in the volume ‘It Happened in the Kitchen,’ which was featured twice on Phil Donohue’s popular TV program. Their book was a major source for this one. Finally, the growing popularity of Arab cuisine, backed by scientific research into nutrition, has broadened the audience and market for what was once seen as an ‘exotic’ menu.”

The recipes are for the Lebanese dishes on which Nader grew up. Many are well-known such as hummus and baba ghanoush, as well as others that may be lesser known, such as kibbe, the versatile dish of Lebanon, and sheikh al-mahshi — “the king of stuffed foods.”

Nader’s anecdotes and chapter introductions made me feel I was a guest at the Nader family table enjoying a meal that would perhaps include these dishes.

The headnote says, “An appetizer which can serve as a light lunch or supper. It attracts the palate and the eye and teases the taste buds. To enhance its subtle flavor, serve at room temperature or slightly chilled. The hummus, cooked and blended smoothly, can be frozen and kept for future use. As with baba ghanoush, hummus bi tahini works well with warmed pita bread.”

For dried chickpeas: Soak the chickpeas overnight in cold water after removing any small stones or blemished chickpeas. The next day, wash the chickpeas well, rinsing them several times.

Put chickpeas in a pot with 6 cups of cold water and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for roughly 1 hour. Tilt the cover of the pot so there is a way for the steam to escape, keeping the foam under control. The chickpeas are done when a pea can be mashed easily between two fingers.

For canned chickpeas: Drain and rinse.

Put garlic, salt, cumin, lemon juice, chickpeas and tahini in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Follow this procedure three or four times until all the ingredients have been finely blended. If more liquid is needed, add 2 tablespoons of cold water or more lemon juice, which will give the hummus a tangy taste.

Serve on a platter chilled or at room temperature. Drizzle olive oil over the top. If you wish, you can sprinkle paprika over the hummus for color. Garnish with sprigs of parsley. Serves 6.

The headnote says, “A refreshing, nutritious, colorful salad. Makes an elegant entrée for a summer meal. Refrigerated, tabouleh stays fresh for several days.”

Tear parsley florets off the stems. Pick mint leaves off the stems.

Rinse the parsley and mint. Mince the parsley very fine and cut the mint into small pieces. Wash burghul and soak in water for 5-7 minutes. Squeeze the water out and add to the above. Add scallions, minced tomatoes and lemon juice until a tart taste has been achieved. Add olive oil to taste. Season with salt and pepper.

Wash lettuce and separate the leaves. Drain well. Place some of the lettuce leaves on a serving platter and put the tabouleh over it. Decorate the top with thin tomato slices and small pieces of lettuce all the way around the platter so that these can be included with each serving. Serves 10.

Wash kale well, remove ribs and stems (optional) and cut into small pieces. Steam the kale until soft, about 30-40 minutes.

Sauté the onions over medium heat in olive oil until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the sunflower seeds and cook for 1 minute.

Add the steamed kale to onions and sunflower seeds and mix well.

Strain and cut the organic tofu into small pieces and add to the kale without mixing at first, letting the tofu heat up.

Add tamari sauce, mix all together, and cook for 5-10 minutes.

Serve on a platter with steamed carrots as a garnish for vivid color against the kale. Serves 4.

The headnote says, “Although macaroons may be considered sweets, they serve as nourishment also. These macaroons themselves are not sweet, but the glaze balances the subtle tastes in the body of the macaroon.”

* This is the spice made from the ground pit of a wild cherry usually available in a Middle Eastern market.

Prepare the macaroons: Dissolve yeast cakes in milk. In a large bowl, mix flour and sesame seeds. Thoroughly combine anise seed and mahlab in a blender together and add to the flour mixture.

Add olive oil and whisked eggs to flour mixture.

Knead all the ingredients well (but not hard) for about 15 minutes until the bowl is clean on the sides. The dough should be a little loose.

Cover and let the dough rise for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

After the dough has risen, form 2 handfuls into a big, long, rounded shape on the worktable, about 2 feet long. Cut the dough into 1-inch pieces.

To form a macaroon, gently press each 1-inch piece against the grain on a flat cheese grater to create a pattern. Carefully roll the dough off the grater in one motion with the back of your fingers, forming a macaroon about the shape of a forefinger. Place onto a cookie sheet with the overlap facing down.

Bake for about 25 minutes. The macaroons are finished when slightly brown.

Prepare syrup for glaze: While macaroons are baking, dissolve sugar and water. Add lemon juice. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, and boil for 3-4 minutes. Add orange blossom water.

With a slotted spoon, dip cooked macaroons in hot syrup to glaze as soon as they are removed from the oven. Remove from glaze and place in a colander sitting in a larger bowl to permit the macaroons to drain slightly before being placed on a platter.

If macaroons are being stored for future eating, use wax paper between layers to prevent them from sticking to each other. Makes about 90 macaroons.

The headnote says, “Everyone waited for this at Christmas once a year. Mother also served this on other special occasions and we continue the tradition. My niece Nadia Milleron prepared the gelatin pictured here.”

Soak the gelatin in cold water, then add the hot water and dissolve well.

Add coconut sugar and stir well. Mix citrus juices, unstrained, and add to gelatin mixture. Stir well. Pour in a bowl and leave in the refrigerator overnight.

Mix gelatin, cream cheese, and pineapple in a blender (first set on chop and then on puree) in small amounts until all have been blended.

Fold into a cake pan (10 inches in diameter with a tube in the middle) and allow to sit for one day before serving.

Turn the dessert onto a platter. This takes quick but steady movements so the dessert slips onto the platter without breaking up.

Decorate with fresh strawberries in the opening at the center and over the top of the entire dessert. Slice and serve as one would a cake. Serves 15-20.