Spice for Life
Suzy Phillips minces handfuls of flat-leaf parsley at the tiled counter in the kitchen of her 1930s cottage. It’s a ritual she repeats every few Sundays, just as her mother did in Lebanon for monthly dinners with friends and family—even when sequestered to dark and dingy bomb shelters during the decades-long Lebanese War.
“The women would work for days preparing the meals—gossiping, all jacked up on coffee—while the men played backgammon,” Phillips recalls, smiling at the thought. “[Sometimes] we’d go on picnics and the kids would help out by picking olives. Eventually, we’d preserve the leftover ones with salt.”
These rich cultural traditions are the good memories Phillips chooses to recall, despite her childhood fraught with hardship and terror brought about by a complex civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990.
Phillips’ American father, whose business ventures reached into Africa, ultimately moved to another country without the family, leaving them in war-torn Beirut. At 15, she moved to the United States with her mother in hopes of a better, more peaceful future.
Once in the States, it was traditional meals—a litany of Lebanese delicacies laden with spices, fresh herbs, rich sesame paste, rosewater-scented sugar syrup, conversation, and fellowship—that kept the small family unit linked to their heritage.
Phillips credits her cooking chops to her mother, a woman who would have been a success in the culinary world, she maintains. But 75-year-old Salwa Farah, who now lives in Florida, grew up with few opportunities. Farah’s parents sent her out to clean houses, rather than to attend school. Once in the States, she babysat and cleaned homes to support her children.
Black-and-white portraits of Farah looking movie-star glamorous appear around Phillips’ cottage. A brass coffee pot and several wooden mortar and pestle sets from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon hint at Phillips’ exotic upbringing. Her present life is exemplified by the colorful, shabby-chic kitchen, enamelware bowls, adopted dogs named Olive and Ginger underfoot, and the vibrant collage art by her husband, artist and writer Gabriel Shaffer.
For her, life’s many influences meld in the kitchen. “People breaking bread together is important to me,” explains Phillips. “It’s an all-day event of cooking and catching up with friends.” It’s an experience she wants to replicate beyond her home with a restaurant. “I want to open doors to the community for food, love, and friendship,” she declares, tossing back strands of her thick curls with a flip of the head. Phillips is easily recognized around Asheville as a server at two popular restaurants, but her passion is at the back of the house—grinding, chopping, mixing, and making.
Several investors were interested in backing a café she had already christened Zeytoon (olives in Arabic) for a summer opening in West Asheville. But with the volatile economy, a major backer was forced to pull out. So for the time being, Phillips has scaled back, and is creating a business plan for a traveling lunch truck.
“I want to feed people good food,” Phillips says simply, raking a mound of parsley from a cutting board into a bowl of glistening diced tomatoes. Today’s meal is a sampling of potential menu items—a traditional feast of tabbouleh, lamb kafta, onion-sumac-parsley salad, falafel, and tahini sauce.
Like a pro, she cautions that for proper tabbouleh—a traditional Middle-Eastern salad—the parsley to bulgur wheat ratio is key. One bunch of the flavorful Italian flat-leaf parsley to a quarter cup of fine bulgur provides a truer, purer taste than the grain-heavy Americanized version. Lemon juice contributes a refreshing tang to the herbs and wheat.
With a deft hand she blends tahini (ground sesame paste), lemon juice, crushed garlic, and water by intuitive amounts, stirring continuously, watching with approval as the mixture separates and combines again several times during the process. This is tarator, which will serve as the sauce for both the falafel and lamb kafta (ground meat blended with herbs and grilled on skewers).
Last night, Phillips prepared the dessert—a labor-intensive semolina cake called nammoura, which is studded with almonds and soaked with yogurt and sugar syrup. It will be a subtle, sweet finish to the intensely flavored main dishes.
She made the kafta this morning, rolling and shaping the mixture of lamb, parsley, onions, pepper, and her fresh-made Lebanese Seven Spice around skewers so that the flavors could mingle in the fridge. In Lebanon, every household has its own mixture of Seven Spice, she explains. Ground in small batches to remain pungent, hers contains cumin, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, coriander, white pepper, and cinnamon.
Chickpea flour and finely chopped herbs make up the falafel. She shapes large patties and smaller hors d’oeuvre balls, and then drops them into hot oil as some of the guests arrive and watch.
Phillips is schooled in the ways of cooking for an audience. For a time, she hosted her own public access television program, teaching Middle Eastern cooking in an easy-to-follow style.
She settles the guests in the garden with a cocktail—the strong, anis-flavored arak of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East that magically turns milky once the clear liquid mixes with water. Just then, Shaffer arrives from his restaurant job ready to jump in and grill the meat.
“I didn’t realize food could be such a major fabric of a family,” Shaffer shares with a guest as the coals begin to glow. “Suzie introduced me to a different philosophy as far as her relationship to food.”
He describes their dinner parties as a happy menagerie of folk that are as nourishing for the spirit as for the body. “By transferring that energy from her hands into her food, it’s the spark that triggers people,” Shaffer marvels.
Friend Megan Stokes, a Pilates instructor and frequenter of Sunday dinners chimes in, “I can’t tell you how much of her hummus I’ve devoured,” she laughs. “Suzie’s cooking introduces people to this amazing healthy food that a lot of people might never have tried before.”
Today, even the best-laid plans and table must surrender to a summer downpour. The group rushes platters of food inside and sets up the meal as a buffet on the front porch. It’s a squeeze, but no one seems to mind standing or crowding together on the sofa. Their plates are piled high with this riot of flavors—tangy notes of sour, savory, and spicy—that call forth the balmy streets of a world, and a lifetime, far away.
Grilled Lamb Kafta with Tarator
Sumac, Onion & Parsley Salad
Hummus & Pita
- 2/3 cup fine bulgur
- 1½ lbs. tomatoes, diced
- 1½ bunches scallions, trimmed & thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup fresh spearmint leaves, finely chopped
- 2 bunches Italian flat-leaf parsley, destemmed & finely chopped
- Salt, to taste
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Romaine lettuce leaves
Place bulgur in a mixing bowl. Add tomatoes and allow the juice to moisten bulgur. Add scallions, spearmint, and parsley. Sprinkle with salt, and pour in lemon juice and olive oil. Mix salad, and adjust seasoning to taste. Serve over romaine leaves.
- 1 medium onion, peeled
- 1/2 bunch parsley, destemmed
- 1 lb. lean ground lamb or beef
- 1 Tbs. Lebanese Seven Spice (recipe follows)
- Salt, to taste
- 1/2 tsp. finely ground black pepper
Lebanese Seven spice
- 2 Tbs. freshly ground allspice
- 1 tsp. freshly toasted & ground cumin
- 1 tsp. freshly toasted & ground coriander
- 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp. ground white pepper
- 1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
- 1/8 tsp. ground cloves
For the Grilled Kafta
In a food processor, finely chop onion and parsley, and transfer to a mixing bowl. Place meat and Seven Spice in the food processor and pulse until smooth. Transfer to the bowl with the parsley mixture, and add salt and pepper. Mix with your hands until well blended. Shape into sausages and grill until medium rare, about two minutes on each side. Serve with sumac, onion, and parsley salad and hummus on pita.
For the Lebanese Seven spice
Mix all spices until well-blended. Note: Make small batches, so taste remains concentrated and fresh. Use as a rub for poultry, lamb, or beef.
- 1 bunch parsley, finely chopped
- 1 medium onion, quartered & thinly sliced
- 1 Tbs. ground sumac
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large garlic clove, smashed into paste
Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve with grilled meats or as a salad.
- 1½ cups sugar (white granulated or superfine golden raw)
- 1/2 cup plus 2 Tbs. water
- 1 Tbs. lemon juice
- 1 Tbs. orange blossom water
- 1 Tbs. rose water
- 1½ cups coarse semolina
- 1/4 cup fine sugar
- 6 Tbs. unsalted butter, softened
- 1½ cups plain yogurt
- 1/2 tsp. baking soda
- 1 Tbs. tahini
- 1/3 cup blanched almonds
For the Sugar Syrup
In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring sugar, water, and lemon juice to a boil, stirring occasionally. Let boil for three to four minutes, then stir in orange blossom and rose water. Boil for about 30 seconds. Remove from heat and allow to cool before pouring over cake. Note: You can store syrup in a glass jar with a tight seal for a couple of weeks. For a Middle Eastern lemonade, try this instead of simple syrup.
In a bowl, mix semolina, sugar, and butter with hands until well-blended. Add yogurt and baking soda, and mix until batter is firm. Grease a nine-inch, round pan with tahini. Spread batter evenly across pan. Flatten with the back of a spoon. Cover with clean kitchen towel, and let sit for three hours—this allows the dry semolina to absorb the yogurt.
Shortly before three hours are up, preheat oven to 400°F. Score the cake into one-inch squares and press one blanched almond into each square. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until golden. Remove from oven and pour syrup over the hot cake. Allow to cool before serving, about two hours. Serve with strong, unsweetened black Turkish coffee or black tea.