After an hour or so of researching Jordanian cuisine, I realized I was going to have to make an important decision about the future of the 197 Dishes project.
You see, there appear to be very few foods that are specifically “Jordanian” rather than Levantine (i.e. Jordanian/Lebanese/Palestinian/Syrian) – which makes sense. When there are a bunch of little countries next to each other with the same climate and a significant amount of shared culture, they’re all likely to eat about the same things, and it’s going to be pretty hard to pinpoint which one of them gets to claim a particular food as “theirs.” The few dishes I could find that were generally attributed specifically to Jordan were Bedouin in origin and, unfortunately for me, tended to involve ingredients or cooking techniques that would require spending more time or money than I had available this week. That meant that I had to think about the mission behind 197 Dishes: did I want to find and make a recipe that was truly unique to each country, or simply a recipe that was typical of that country (or of some part of it) – something, in short, that a person from the region in question would recognize as part of the local cuisine? Given that I have no doubt this same issue will come up again when I’m dealing with small countries with lots of neighbors that share climates, languages, religions, etc., I pretty quickly decided that I was going to go with the second option.
Around the same time, I realized one more thing: reading lots and lots of recipes for Middle Eastern food is a good way to make yourself ravenously hungry for falafel. I couldn’t make falafel this week, though, since it would violate one of the cardinal rules of 197 Dishes: I’ve cooked and eaten falafel before, so it doesn’t qualify as trying something new in any way. Luckily for me, once I decided what I would be cooking, I needed to pick up a couple of ingredients from the local Middle Eastern grocery, which, like many such stores, adjoins a little family restaurant. Success! I hadn’t even cooked anything yet, and already this project was making my week tastier.
Having sated my falafel cravings yesterday, I was ready to make two things I’d never tried before tonight.
(Wait, you say. Two things? Yes. I cheated a bit this week and made two things. I guess the project is 198 Dishes now, except for the part where I’m sure I’ll cheat that way again, and “Probably, Like, 273 Dishes or Something, I Dunno” doesn’t make for a very catchy title.)
The reason I cheated was that I discovered the existence of limonana – a.k.a. mint lemonade, which is apparently very, very popular in Jordan. I love lemonade, and fresh-squeezed frosty green lemonade sounded just too good to resist, even in January. But just mixing a couple of extra ingredients into lemonade didn’t quite seem to live up to the mission of this blog, so I decided I was going to have to make a food to go with my frosty green beverage. I wanted something that would be able to work as an entree but wouldn’t be too time-consuming to prepare – and, of course, it needed to be something I’d never eaten before. Ara’yes (also spelled “arayes”) seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
Let’s start with the limonana.
There are only five ingredients for this one: lemons, sugar, water, mint, and orange blossom water.
I made lemonade as I would normally (juice lemons, mix with sugar and water, ta da, it’s lemonade), and then came the fun part. I took the entire contents of that package of mint (minus a couple of leaves that looked a bit past their prime), pulled off the stems, and stuck the leaves into a blender with a little water until I had finely-shredded mint in the form of…well, green sludge, but really good smelling green sludge! I added my green sludge to the pitcher of lemonade, along with a splash of orange blossom water, and stirred that all up. Then I poured the contents of the pitcher into some smaller, sealed plastic containers and stuck those in the freezer to get nice and slushy while I made the ara’yes.
Once dinner was ready, I poured the drinks, which ended up looking like this:
I want to drink this every day for the rest of my life. I want to always be drinking this. It is SO GOOD.
There was really never any doubt in my mind that I was going to love this stuff, and, indeed, I loved it. I loved it a lot. As you would expect, it tastes very much like a non-alcoholic mojito, so I suspect I would also love it a lot if I were to add some rum to the mix. (I fully intend on doing exactly that come summer.) You could leave out the orange blossom water and not really lose much – I liked the extra touch of floral aroma, but it’d still be thoroughly delicious without it.
juice of six lemons (this came out to around one and 2/3 cups)
5 cups water
1 cup sugar (I used a little less than a cup, because I like my lemonade tart)
approximately 1/2 cup mint leaves
splash of orange blossom water
Next, on to the ara’yes!
Ara’yes are essentially little crispy sandwiches filled with seasoned meat. I used them as a main course, but they’re probably more often served as an appetizer or snack.
As always, I began by gathering my ingredients:
If it weren’t January, I would have used an actual fresh tomato instead of canned diced tomatoes, but my local grocery store’s hothouse tomatoes have recently been pretty pathetically flavorless even for hothouse tomatoes. I would absolutely recommend a real, fresh, flavorful tomato in this recipe (and in every other recipe that features tomatoes, really) if you have access to one.
The only ingredient in this dish that I wasn’t familiar with before I began is in the back of that photo on the left side. That’s a bottle of pomegranate molasses, which I learned about from this recipe. (I looked at a lot of different recipes when I was figuring out how to make my ara’yes, but that particular recipe on dish-away.com looked especially delicious, and so I ended up sticking fairly closely to it. A lot of her other recipes look great, too, so check her blog out!) Pomegranate molasses tastes very much like its name – which is to say, it tastes like a cross between tart fruit juice and bittersweet molasses. I found it easily at the Middle Eastern grocery, but if you can’t find it, I suspect you could probably use lemon juice as a reasonable substitute.
There are really only four steps to making the meat mixture that’s going to fill your ara’yes: chop your onion nice and fine (I sliced it and then tossed the slices in a food processor for 30 seconds or so), chop or tear your parsley nice and fine, throw everything in that picture except for the pitas and olive oil in a bowl, and then use your hands or a tool like a potato masher to mix it all together, so that this:
Once you’ve made your meaty filling, slice the pitas into fourths. Open up each little pita triangle and spoon in about 1-2 tablespoons of filling. Spread it nice and thin on the inside of the pita, like so:
Once you’ve filled all your pita quarters with meat and finished pretending they’re man-eating alien plant-monsters, brush both sides of each pita with olive oil and arrange them on a couple of cookie sheets.
Bake them at 325° F for about 20-25 minutes, flipping them over halfway through. When they’re done, they should be golden brown and crispy.
I served my ara’yes with hummus and tzatziki – you can eat the ara’yes plain or dip them in the sauces as if they were savory, meat-filled chips.
Tasty! Crispy on the outside, juicy and flavorful on the inside. I didn’t love these as much as I loved last week’s dish or as much as I loved the limonana, but those are two very high bars. These would make a terrific party snack, and they’re easy enough to make that they’re definitely going into my arsenal for when I’m entertaining guests.
Personally, I liked them plain or with hummus. I love tzatziki, but it wasn’t a good fit with the flavors of this dish for me. That said, one of the other people sharing tonight’s meal really liked the tzatziki on them, so feel free to try it and see what you think!
If I were to change anything about these for next time…well, first of all, I’d use a proper tomato. Unsurprisingly, the canned tomatoes didn’t really add much flavor. Besides that, I think I’d like to try adding a little heat to the dish – I think a chili pepper or some hot sauce mixed into the meat filling would make these even tastier.
1 lb lean ground beef
1/2 of a medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 can finely diced tomatoes, drained (use a fresh tomato instead, though, seriously)
3 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 tbsp tahini
1-2 tsp pomegranate molasses
pinch cayenne pepper
6 to 7 pitas, cut into fourths
hummus and tzatziki for serving, if desired
* a dash is less than a pinch, in case that wasn’t clear