I’ve only had two jobs in my life that were so unbearably horrible that I hate to think back on. The first was when I was sixteen — I worked at one of those tutoring centers in the San Fernando Valley. Not the good kind, where parents send their over ambitious children to get ahead… it was the opposite, where lazy parents sent their rowdy, manner-less kids to terrorize sixteen-year olds, like me. I lasted three months — and when I gave my four weeks’ notice, my manager took me outside and gave me this incredible look, and scolded me for not giving her enough notice. She was terrible.
The other was my first real-life job after graduation, when I was twenty-two. I was working for an agency selling Xerox machines, six months after the big recession hit in 2008. It. was. terrible.
It was one of those work environments that was really responsible for giving sales people a bad name. The managers preyed on their employees’ profits, the company tried to sell products that were clearly terrible, and literally every person in that office spent a good deal of time applying to other jobs. Anything. I was even interviewing at restaurants all over Los Angeles, and striking out, partially because I had left restaurant work already, for a desk job. What they didn’t understand was that I would have gladly gone back to a job that I really loved — waiting tables — to escape the terrors something I hated and just wasn’t cut out for.
Anyway, the three months I spent at Xerox weren’t a complete loss — I became friends with someone I’m still friends with today. In fact, she came to visit DC once (and we frolicked around Dupont Circle with Kristen in leotards) and we even traveled to Bogotá together. And when we were both incredibly miserable at Xerox, we would drive off to our sales territories together, do the minimum required to make a few sales/not get fired, and spend the rest of our time applying to jobs. A regular lunch spot there was a little Mediterranean sandwich shop which has since shut down — but I became friends with the owners, who were very Lebanese, so I got to exchange a little Arabic banter and enjoy their amazing Lebanese sandwiches.
I’ve since gone back to Monrovia, hunting for that shop, and that’s how I know it’s now gone. And I’ve been hunting for similar shops that mimic that impeccable flavor, but have really just failed.
So when Food 52 published a recipe for shish taouk, I couldn’t help but try it. And while I almost always turn to F52 as a cooking resource, this recipe was just a tad complicated and involved for me to carry out fully. So I broke it down, and simplified it into a meal that I could quickly throw together after a long day at work or a rough spin class at the gym.
An excerpt from my past (hold back your chuckle — it’s from livejournal… and super emo):
3 days left in the valley, and I’ll probably be home for one or two days between Sunday and mid-June. And after 3 weeks of intensely monotonous work, an upside-down iceberg of a relationship, and salsa dancing with confusion, I honestly don’t know how much longer I can stand being here. I don’t see much here anymore, let alone have I talked to the majority of you in the past six months. But this friends page is just about the second or third site I click on when I go online, probably alternating with Bank of America.
Seeing a few of the old high school friends at random rendezvous made me miss the ones at college terribly – I think my days of reminiscing and telling high school stories with Cari might finally be over, now that I realize that the people I’ve known for years are finally growing up. I call her and we say things like “I can’t believe I have to see him twice over break,” or “can we go to a party the instant we get home?”
And then we exchange why either of us made those comments, and then we agree. “I’m sick of the valley.” “The partying is so different now in Sac.” “Let’s go to Chipotle next weekend.” “Fix it, he’s your ride.” “It’s okay, I’ve been stuck in a love triangle for 3 years now.” “Did I call you on New Years?” “He doesn’t know what he’s doing.” “I hope you don’t get into UCLA, because I am going to miss you.”
I normally write when I’m upset. No wonder I stopped writing in Santa Barbara.
Needless to say, my domestic life has wasted away with my data entry job. Nor have I slept much lately, except for this evening – I was supposed to finish some sewing projects and stop by American Apparel. I’ve run out of flat fabric to actually make clothes with, so I’ve been resizing all my thrift-store t-shirts so they fit perfectly. I used to make so many clothes in high school – without patterns, too. Some things come right back after you spend months or years away. But some things still disappear on you, no matter how well you kept in touch or what good friends you are. Sometimes you go through emotions and you write more than you ever could, filling up a notebook or pages and pages of cyberspace. And you don’t even look back on what you write, but you throw that notebook away or ctrl+a+delete, and it’s gone, as if it never even existed.
It’s always interesting to read something you wrote long ago. Sometimes, I look back on my writing from high school and college and think, well, my voice is the same, but I can’t for the life of me remember what some of the emotions were about. Perhaps I was trying a form of subtle obviousness. Who knows? I was barely a freshman in college when I wrote this.
The boy in my life back then was, interestingly enough, living in DC for college, and was obsessed with Arabic before the study even appealed to me. Maybe he planted the seed. But he is as much a completely different person as I am from my eighteen year old self. I imagine he has since grown up, as he is probably a wonderful husband as he was a wonderful confidant to me all those years ago. We had good times — he drove me back to school at the end of my first winter break, and he was as sweet as he was awkward. I definitely have a type.
It’s nice, and sometimes heartbreaking to read about the boys of your youth. But they’ll almost all be considered that someday, right? Exes, first loves, hookups that would have been nice to have worked out. They’re all reflections of our younger, former selves.
Interestingly enough, I came across this post when sifting through the posts marked “draft” in WordPress. I didn’t hate this one. I wrote it 8 months ago.
Things have changed so much since then, I can’t even remember where I drew those emotions from.
These za’atar bars also bring back memories of a younger, former self. One of my best friends in college was my friend Randa, a passionately argumentative and wild twenty-two year old from a long string of equally fierce Palestinian women. When her entire family visited her at UCLA (by way of the East Bay), she’d invite me over for a huge dinner — I’d practice my kindergarten Arabic and they’d fill my plates with food, plate after plate, despite protests of girlish figures and Los Angeles’ year-round bikini season.
She’s since moved to New York and Jordan and Ramallah, but Gchat and Snapchat keep us in check. She brought these home for me once on a trip home to the Bay, and I made her get the recipe from her mother. It was unbearably simple — and I make these for pretty much any potluck. They’re best served hot and crispy, so they’re ideal for office parties where a toaster oven is present.
Za’atar Cheese Bars
1 package (20-25 sheets) filodough, thawed
4 cups shredded mozzarella — or a 1 lb. bag
2 cups shredded parmesan cheese
2 cups crumbled feta
1 cup za’atar spice mixture
4 eggs, whisked until frothy
1 stick butter, melted
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
Brush a 9×13 brownie/cake pan with a layer of melted butter. Layer on a few sheets of filodough, and then brush again with a layer of butter. Use about half of the filodough sheets.
In a mixing bowl, combine the cheeses, za’atar, and eggs. Use your hands to fully incorporate all of the ingredients, and then spread the cheese mixture onto the filodough layer. Use a spatula to spread evenly.
Then, layer a few more filo sheets on top of the cheese. Brush with butter, and repeat with every two sheets until you are out of filodough. If you have any butter left, go ahead and just pour it on top.
Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the dough is crisp and a golden brown. Remove, and let cool completely before cutting (to give the bars a clean edge). Then, slice with a sharp knife, and reheat in a toaster oven (or a conventional oven) before serving.
Travel, like this lovely district, has always been a strong muse for my writing. There really is something special about venturing out into the world — seeing something you’ve never seen before, living like the locals do, and meeting people whose lives are so undeniably different than your own. It’s always ignited my self-examinations.
After all, it was a short trip to an unknown city that quickly brought about the change of all changes in my life: moving to DC.
I hadn’t travelled much by then, as I was only a couple of months out of college. Plus, California is so huge that just stepping foot outside of the state takes hours of driving or an expensive plane ticket. On this coast, however, states lines are everywhere, and my grown-up budget can afford to send me somewhere fun every now and then.
While the connections I make in my travels are by far the highlight, time and time again, what comes in at a close second is always the food.
And it’s not necessarily consuming local food. Just the act of eating is a sacred act in its own, one during which someone feeds, and another is fed. The nourishment goes both ways.
I, myself, enjoy feeding. I host, I plan, I cook, and I teach. While I absolutely love the food, the act of serving a meal to those I love is what I crave — that is what keeps me in the kitchen, at the dining table, and later, on an antique couch with a cougar-pour of red wine. I crave the feeding as much as other people crave the act of being fed. The nourishment is reciprocated, especially for those who crave being fed, and at the end of the night, the dishes are put away, your guests go home (or stay). Everyone sleeps fulfilled.
1 sheet puff pastry
1/2 cup za’atar spice mixture
1/3 cup olive oil
Remove the puff pastry from packaging and unfold onto a cutting board.
In a small bowl, stir the za’atar into the olive oil until it forms a liquidy paste. Spread the paste evenly over the puff pastry. Then, roll both edges in until they meet in the middle. Cover log with saran wrap, and chill in your refrigerator over night, or in your freezer for about 20 minutes.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Slice the log, making palmiers about 1/3 inches thick. Place on a baking sheet (either greased, lined with foil or a baking mat), and bake for about 15 minutes.
It has taken me ten months, but I’ve finally stumbled upon a market that carries Haloumi cheese. Yes. Ten. Months.
I’ve written about my slight integration into Arab culture before. It started with the language classes, deepened with friendships, and snowballed into a giant cultural chasm when I was sucked into a Lebanese dance performance and then guilted into designing publications for the Lebanese social events. Yes, I was the honorary Arab. After transferring to UCLA, my Santa Barbara Lebanese club friends would come to Los Angeles to visit every once in a while. They would lie to the members who did not know me, telling them that I was Lebanese. When I told them that their friends were playing jokes on them, they wouldn’t believe me. I’ve been condemned to forever speaking Arabic with a Lebanese accent. That’s what I get for overexposure to Lebanese people.
Even in Washington, I sat down to a dinner with an Egyptian non-profit worker. We exchanged a few words. And then she asked me what part of Lebanon I learned Arabic in. Years later, I try to integrate myself into a generic form of Arabic culture – and I find that I’m once again Lebanese. Maybe I always was Lebanese and always will be; I’ll never really know. I guess I’m justracially ambiguous.
Anyway, two of my favorite parts of Arab food are Haloumi cheese and za’atar. Za’atar. I can’t quite explain the correct pronunciation with English letters – it uses the sexy, emphatic, back-of-the-throat “short A,” which is essentially a mix between the American short vowel “a” and long vowel “a.” Zaaa’tar.
Za’atar itself is actually an herb on its own, without any real translation into English. Some people think it is what we know as thyme or oregano, but some basic research proved its independence from both. It’s a shrub plant, similar to oregano, with little fuzzy leaves, which grows naturally in parts of Israel and throughout the Arab Levant. It’s actually illegal to pick za’atar in Israel, to avoid overharvesting the herb. The fine for picking za’atar is the equivalent to $135. Naturally, it’s difficult to find the legitimate form of the za’atar plant here in the US. So we make do. We Google za’atar, we call our Arab friends, who call their mothers and grandmothers, and we learn that every Arab grandmother has her own version of za’atar, that is most likely a family secret. But we make do. And we make our own. In this case, I made the half-Irish-half-Filipino version of a traditional Arab spice mixture. And it has no influence from the Irish side or the Filipino side, but since every family has their own version of za’atar, this is mine.
Za’atar is an amazingly versatile spice to keep in your kitchen. Toss it in a salad, dress a chicken with it, or mix it with olive oil to dip any type of bread in. It will have your guests drooling, and asking for more. More often than not, I end up sending my deprived friends home with a jar of my spice mixture.
Haloumi cheese in itself was impossible to find, until a week or so ago. I’ve been to so many specialty stores in the Washington area, and no one carried it. Until the new Safeway reopened in Georgetown. And there, the heavens broke through the clouds, shining light on my little (expensive) box of that unbelievably salty cheese that brings me back to Isla Vista brunches. This cheese — this orgasmic, heavenly cheese – can be eaten cold, or grilled. Yes, grilled. I like to slice it up, and throw it on one of my nonstick frying pans until the edges crisp into a nice, golden brown. You know it’s perfect when you bite into a slice and the outside is perfectly crisp and sizzling hot, while the inside is not as hot and soft, almost to the point of gooey. As my friend at The Spinning Platewould say: it’s “better than sex… maybe.” But let’s be honest. There’s an end point to sex. I could literally eat Haloumi cheese nonstop, for the rest of my life. Until I died of salt intake and high cholesterol as a result of eating too much cheese.
If the sesame seeds are raw and not toasted, heat a dry, non-stick pan over your stove. Pour the seeds into the pan, and use your wrist to shake and shift them over the heat, until they are all a golden brown — you’ll know when they’re ready by the aroma. Sesame is one of the strongest flavors out there.
Once cooled, toss the seeds into your food processor and pulse grind a couple of times, just to get some different sizes and textures in there. Then, add the remaining ingredients and pulse grind again, until evenly mixed.
In college, I was in Lebanese Club. No, I’m not Lebanese–or any form of Arab, for that matter. My undergrad concentration involved Arabic, and some mutual friends sucked me into Lebanese Club, where I was adopted as the honorary half-Filipino member amidst my new Arab friends (don’t worry, I contributed my own personal ethnic confusions to a UCLA dissertation study on people who identify with cultures other than their own).
A friend of mine in college had a parallel obsession. He explained it well, claiming that because his white people had no culture, he simply opted to adopt another. I’d have to agree. I, personally, identify as half-Filipino because I look Filipino–but I was raised in white “culture.” This involved a number of fun and borrowed traditions, alongside a number of relatively boring European ones and other miscellaneous fascinations. A example of a fun borrowed tradition would be my family’s love of oldies music–most of those artists are black. A boring European tradition would be eating potatoes, like our Irish ancestors, as we discuss how much it sucked that Irish people had to live off of them for so long. Sometimes potatoes are great, but “white” culture didn’t have a thing that swept me off my feet like the beautiful Arabic script or Islamic architecture. And, Catholic school doesn’t teach you a single thing about the Middle East, aside from the fact that the Hebrews were God’s chosen people. So needless to say, the moment I stepped off a plane in Dubai, I was smitten.
Anyway, I’m years removed from my beloved Lebanese Club of Santa Barbara, and I still remember the way they would swoon over mana’eesh, a flat bread from Lebanon that is baked with za’atar, an Arab mixture of herbs. I’ve always wanted to walk down a road in Beirut and buy it right off the street, exactly in the way they described — someday, I will. But for now, I just live out my imagination by making it from scratch and testing it’s authenticity on my friends here in Washington. I’m pretty sure they’ll continue to adopt me into the Arab world, and I will love every minute of it.
WHAT YOU NEED:
Whole Wheat Flat Bread:
1/2 tablespoon active dry yeast
2-1//4 cups warm water
1/8 teaspoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup ground sumac
4 tablespoons thyme
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
4 tablespoons marjoram
4 tablespoons oregano
2 tablespoons coarse sea salt
WHAT TO DO:
First, combine the yeast and the sugar with 1/4 cup of the warm water. Stir until completely dissolved, and then let it sit in a large mixing bowl for about five minutes, until the solution becomes frothy. Then stir in the remaining water.
Add in half of the flour and mix into a dough. Then, add the salt and olive oil, begin to knead, and then knead in the rest of the flour. The dough should be relatively soft, but it should also spring back when you poke it (kind of like memory foam). Roll the dough into a ball, and cover in olive oil. Place it back in the bowl, cover with saran wrap, and leave it in a warm place to rise for about two hours.
In the meantime, prepare the za’atar. If your sesame seeds are raw, you will need to roast them — doing so releases the natural oils in the seeds that supply their strong flavor. Heat your sesame seeds in a clean, ungreased, frying pan, on low heat, for about 5 minutes or until the seeds are golden in color. Then, pulse-grind the sesame seeds in a food processor. Combine the rest of the ingredients in the food processor.
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. When the dough has finished rising, split it into smaller pieces, and roll to about 1/4 inch in thickness. I used a pint glass to cut round circles of dough, which I then further rolled with a rolling pin down as thin as I could get them without tearing the dough.
Mix the za’atar blend with just enough olive oil to create a thick paste. Then spread about a tablespoon of za’atar onto the small pizza dough we’ve just rolled out. Bake in the oven for about 4-5 minutes. Mana’eesh is traditionally soft, so avoid letting it crisp.
Would be great with some feta — they’re like mini Levantine pizzas. I love them.