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RECIPES IN THE RAIN.

Byline: Randi Bjornstad The Register-Guard

Novels that focus on food - and also offer recipes for readers to try - aren't exactly new, but they do seem to attract a following, at least if the story is good and the recipes are tasty.

One of the best known of these literally "good reads" is Laura Esquivel's "Like Water For Chocolate," which not only became a widely read novel after its publication in the early 1990s, but also a popular movie.

Mystery writer Diane Mott Davidson has written a dozen whodunits that include recipes, including such titles as "Catering to Nobody," "Prime Cut" and "Tough Cookie."

This year's selection for the Eugene-Springfield area's annual "Readin' in the Rain" project promoted by public libraries and bookstores - and designed to encourage residents to share the experience of enjoying the same book during what's often dreary winter weather - falls into the same genre, but with a Middle Eastern flair.

It features the book "Crescent," written by Arab-American Diana Abu-Jaber, who grew up in upstate New York and taught creative writing at universities in Nebraska, Michigan and Southern California before taking a teaching post at the University of Oregon for several years. Abu-Jaber now teaches at Portland State University.

She wrote an earlier novel, "Arabian Jazz."

"Crescent" takes place in Los Angeles, and much of the story revolves around the people who frequent a Lebanese restaurant called Nadia's Cafe. Sirine, the main character, loves cooking and works at Nadia's.

She also prepares dishes and meals for the people she likes and loves - an "Arabic Thanksgiving" dinner includes not only traditional turkey and sweet potatoes but a broth with smoked green wheat kernels, pepper and garlic, a lamb pie called "fatayer" and whole roasted walnuts in chili sauce.

The book contains many food-related passages that make the mouth water - references to walnut and pomegranate stew, plates of knaffea pastry and making the traditional nut, honey and pastry dessert called baklava - even as it explores relationships, comments on politics and offers a glimpse into Arab culture.

Those who accept this year's "Readin' in the Rain" challenge have the opportunity to take part in an opening celebration of the monthlong event, attend discussion groups about what they've read, as well as take in a free reading of passages from the book by the author.

And then, of course, there are the recipes. The book offers a half-dozen, including the three printed here. Also included here are a stuffed-pepper recipe and a baklava recipe from a Mediterranean cuisine cookbook.

READIN' IN THE RAIN

This year's communitywide reading project is the novel "Crescent" by Arab-American writer Diana Abu-Jaber. The book includes many references to Middle Eastern cuisine, as well as several recipes.

Opening event: 6:30 p.m. Friday, Eugene Public Library, 100 W. 10th Ave. Live music and belly dancing with an introductory talk about the book by Beth Aydelott. Free.

Free discussion groups:

Thursday - 6:30 p.m., Bethel Branch Library

Feb. 9 - 7 p.m., University of Oregon Bookstore

Feb. 12 - 2 p.m., Eugene Public Library

Feb. 16 - 6 p.m., Sheldon Branch Library and 7 p.m., Barnes & Noble Books

Feb. 21 - 7 p.m., Springfield Public Library

Feb. 22 - Noon, Eugene Public Library

An evening with the author: Feb. 23 - Hult Center for the Performing Arts; free

Author book signings: Feb. 24 - 1 p.m., University of Oregon Bookstore; Feb. 25 - 2 p.m., Tsunami Books

Dinner with the author: Feb. 25 - 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Fifth Street Public Market; $15 per person, tickets available at UO Bookstore and Tsunami Books

Middle Eastern Textiles Display: January and February - Third Floor, Eugene Public Library

Information: 682-5450 or www.read-rain.org

Mjeddrah

"Some people think of this dish as peasant food - it has no ornate sauces or intricate spices to elevate its status. But in Crescent, as in the everyday world, it is one of the dishes that people end up craving the most - especially when they move away from their countries and homes and families. It is the sort of dish that allows you to taste the deep flavor of its elemental ingredients: lentils, onions and rice. And through these flavors, it seems that you taste the delicious notes of the earth itself, the place where you were born and raised ..."

- Diana Abu-Jaber

in "Crescent"

1 cup uncooked rice

1/2 cup dried brown lentils, soaked for one hour, rinsed several times and drained

1 1/2 cups water

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1 beef bouillon cube

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons butter

1 onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

In a medium saucepan, mix the lentils into the uncooked rice. Add 1 1/2 cups water, cumin, the bouillon cube, salt and pepper and butter. Bring to a boil, then cover and lower the heat to simmer.

Saute the onion in olive oil until golden brown. When the rice is done, remove from heat, let rest 20 minutes, then fluff with a fork.

Turn the rice-lentil mixture out onto a nice serving platter, and spoon the onion over the top.

Tabbouleh Salad

1/4 cup medium bulgur

3 bunches parsley, thoroughly washed and minced (stems discarded)

3 to 4 scallions, peeled and finely sliced in rings

2 medium tomatoes, diced fine

1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and finely diced

Juice of 1 lemon

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt, to taste

Rinse bulgur in water, then cover with additional cold water and soak in a bowl for 1 hour. Change the water or add more, if necessary; it will absorb some water, and there should be water left over. Drain well, even squeezing it out by hand to remove excess liquid.

Toss the bulgur in the bowl with parsley, scallions, tomatoes and cucumber. Combine the lemon juice and olive oil and stir into the tabbouleh. Add salt to taste.

Source: "Crescent" by Diana Abu-Jaber (W.W. Norton & Co., 2003).

Stuffed Grape Leaves

With Lamb Shanks

1 1/2 cups Uncle Ben's rice

1/2 pound lean ground beef

1/2 cup finely minced parsley

6 fresh mint leaves, finely minced

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon cumin

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 1/2 cups water

1 jar of grape leaves (preferably California)

3 fresh lamb shanks, trimmed of fat

8 large garlic cloves, peeled and halved

1 large can (28 ounces) diced peeled tomatoes, with juice

4 teaspoons olive oil

Juice of 2 lemons

In a small bowl, mix by hand the rice, hamburger, parsley, mint, cinnamon, cumin, salt and pepper and 1 cup of the water. Mix thoroughly; it will have a thick, soupy consistency.

To stuff grape leaves, rinse the leaves carefully, then spread a leaf flat on a work surface. Use about 1/2 teaspoon of stuffing if the leaf is small or 1 tablespoon if it's about the size of an average woman's hand; adjust accordingly. Place the stuffing at the wide end of the leaf, roll once to cover, fold in the sides and then finish rolling.

Place the lamb shanks in the bottom of a large Dutch oven and sprinkle with 8 garlic clove halves. Place half the stuffed grape leaves in rows on top of the shanks, folded side down. Sprinkle with the rest of the halved garlic. Top this with the rest of the stuffed grape leaves. Over all, pour the tomatoes, olive oil, the remaining water and the lemon juice.

Bring the pot to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Check after 1 hour and add water if it's dry. Simmer for a total of 3 hours.

Eat with fresh yogurt; if desired, add a little chopped cucumber and minced garlic to the yogurt. Serves 12.

Source: "Crescent."

Couscous-Stuffed Peppers

6 red bell peppers

2 tablespoons butter

1 onion, finely chopped

1 cup water

1 teaspoon olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup uncooked couscous

2 tablespoons raisins

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

1 egg yolk

Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

Mint leaves for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Carefully slit each pepper and remove the core and seeds; set aside.

Melt the butter in a small pan and add the onion, cooking until soft.

To cook the couscous, bring 1 cup water to a boil. Add the olive oil and salt, then remove pan from heat and add the couscous; stir and leave to stand, covered, for 5 minutes.

Stir in the cooked onion, raisins and chopped mint, then season well with salt and pepper. Stir in the egg yolk.

Using a teaspoon, fill the peppers with the couscous mixture, about 3/4 full. Place in a lightly oiled ovenproof dish and bake uncovered for 20 minutes, until tender. Serve hot or cold, garnished with the mint leaves if desired. Serves 4.

Source: "Mediterranean - Over 300 Sun-Drenched Recipes" (LorenzBooks/Hermes House, 1999).

Baklava

For the syrup:

2 cups granulated sugar

1 1/4 cups water

2 tablespoons rose water

For the pastry:

3 cups shelled and ground pistachio nuts

1 1/4 cups icing sugar

1 tablespoon ground cardamom

2/3 cup unsalted butter, melted

18 sheets filo pastry

To make the syrup: Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan; bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes until syrupy. Stir in the rose water and let cool.

To make the pastry: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Mix the nuts, icing sugar and cardamom; set aside.

Brush a large rectangular baking tin with melted butter. Lay one sheet of filo pastry on the bottom of the tin, keeping the remainder covered with a damp dish towel. Brush the sheet with melted butter, then lay another sheet on top of it and brush it with butter.

Repeat until 6 sheets have been placed in the tin and buttered, then spread half of the nut mixture on top of the filo layers, pressing it down with a spoon.

Lay another series of 6 filo sheets on top of the nut mixture, one at a time, brushing each with melted butter. Sprinkle with the remaining nut mixture, again pressing down with a spoon, and repeat again with 6 sheets of buttered filo pastry.

Using a sharp knife, cut the pastry diagonally into strips, then again crosswise parallel to the short sides of the pan, to create a diamond pattern. Pour any remaining melted butter over the top.

Bake for 20 minutes, then increase the oven heat to 400 degrees and bake an additional 15 minutes, until the baklava is golden in color.

Remove from the oven and drizzle about 3/4 of the syrup over the pastry, reserving the rest for serving. Arrange the baklava diamonds on a large serving dish and drizzle with the remaining syrup.

Serves 6 to 8.

Source: "Mediterranean - Over 300 Sun-Drenched Recipes."

CAPTION(S):

From "Crescent": "What is the dish that first lures Hanif to Sirine? It's her tabbouleh salad ... You wouldn't think that such a basic, sturdy dish would have such magnetic attraction. But such is the power of a few fresh vegetables when they're chopped finely, dressed with just the right amounts of lemon and oil, and allowed to do their work." Eggplant Salad With Yogurt and Cilantro 1 large eggplant, a pound or more Salt to taste 1/2 cup flour 3 to 5 tablespoons olive oil 3 to 6 fresh green chilies, minced 2 to 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced 1 to 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar, or more to taste 1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley 1/2 cup chopped cilantro 1/2 to 3/4 cup thick plain yogurt, to taste Salt and pepper, to taste 1/2 cup tomato, peeled, seeded and finely diced Parsley sprigs for garnish Peel the eggplant and cut into 1/2 -inch dice. Place in a colander and sprinkle with plenty of salt. Toss and let drain for about 1 hour. Squeeze the eggplant pieces to remove more liquid, drain on paper towels and transfer to a bowl. Add the flour and toss well to coat all the pieces. Warm the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and saute the eggplant until golden brown, about 8 minutes. Transfer to paper towels and cool. Mix the chilies, garlic, half the vinegar, parsley, cilantro and 1/2 cup yogurt. Add the cooled eggplant cubes; toss and taste. Adjust seasoning as needed with more yogurt, some freshly ground pepper, additional vinegar and salt as needed. Place in a deep dish, make a well in the center and fill it with the chopped tomato. Decorate with sprigs of parsley. Makes 4 servings. Source: "Mediterranean Hot" by Aglaia Kremezi (Artisan/Workman Publishing Company, 1996). Fattoush (Bread Salad) 1 large pita bread 1/2 head lettuce, shredded 1/2 sweet red bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips 1 bunch green onions, chopped 2 to 3 medium tomatoes, finely chopped (optional) 2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley 1 tablespoon fresh chopped mint or 1 teaspoon dried mint Juice of 1 to 2 lemons 4 tablespoons olive oil Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon Bake or grill the pita to dry it out. Break it into small pieces; set aside. Place the remaining ingredients in a large salad bowl. Toss well, then chill. Just before serving, toss in the pieces of bread. Serves 4 to 6. Source: "Middle Eastern Cooking" by Jenny Ridgwell (Ward Lock Ltd., London, 1990). Date Ma-Amoul For the filling: 2/3 cup dates, stones removed 4 tablespoons boiling water 1/2 teaspoon orange flower water For the pastry: 6 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened 1 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon rose water 1 teaspoon orange flower water 3 tablespoons water 4 teaspoons sifted icing sugar, for sprinkling To make the filling: Separate the dates from each other and chop fine with a very sharp, smooth-edged knife. Add the boiling water and the orange flower water; beat vigorously until it almost becomes a puree. Set aside until cool. To make the pastry: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Rub the butter into the flour until well mixed. Add the rose and orange flower waters and the regular water and mix to make a firm dough. Shape the dough into about 25 small balls, by rolling about a teaspoon of the mixture between the hands, keeping hands cool to avoid sticking. Press a finger into the top of each ball to form a "container" for the date mixture. Press the sides around the edges to make the walls quite thin, then put about 1/4 teaspoon of the date mixture into the depression. Seal each ball by pressing the edges of the pastry together. Arrange the date pastries, seam side down, on a lightly greased baking sheet. Decorate each with a prick of a fork or, in the traditional way, with a tweezer. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, then remove from the oven and allow to cool. Place on a serving plate and sprinkle generously with sifted icing sugar. Shake the plate lightly to make sure all the date ma-amoul are well covered with sugar. Makes about 25. Source: "Mediterranean - Over 300 Sun-Drenched Recipes."
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Title Annotation:Food; A book group's selection of the novel 'Crescent' has a Middle Eastern flair and mouthwatering dishes to try
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 1, 2006
Words:2543
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