RECIPES: Thanksgiving meal makes room for family’s Lebanese roots

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

“Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays,” said Hala Yassine. “It’s about family, about being thankful. It has a special place in my heart.”

One reason may be because it was at a Thanksgiving dinner in 2015 that their siblings encouraged Yassine and sister Farrah Haidar to open their Johns Creek bakery, Seven Sisters Scones, a name that references the seven sisters in the family.

Theirs is an immigrant Thanksgiving, a blend of old and new traditions for the family with roots in Lebanon. The family immigrated to the United States in 1975. Escaping the civil war in their home country were parents Yousef and Maha and eight children, with mother Maha pregnant with Farrah. The parents and some of the children returned to Lebanon a decade later while other siblings stayed in the States. Yassine was in Monterey, California, working as a sous chef, and Haidar came to the States, moving to Boston for college. When Yassine was ready to start the bakery in Johns Creek, Haidar moved to Atlanta to work with her.

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As for so many families, COVID-19 changed their holiday celebration, but the sisters remember family celebrations with those conversations about who would make what and where they would gather. “My kids don’t like turkey, so we make a filet instead,” said Yassine. “We do like all the sides, including the sweet potatoes, and we’re always thinking, ‘Let’s make one more dish.’ I say as Lebanese we just don’t know how to quit.” This year, they will gather at Haidar’s house.

While they may serve a filet and traditional Thanksgiving side dishes, the heart of the meal consists of the dishes that remind them of home, especially the sfeeha (meat pies), tabbouleh (bulgur salad) and warak enab (stuffed grape leaves).

“We grew up with these dishes and some of my best memories are of my mother making sfeeha. She would set up a table and make one after another after another. Now it’s up to us,” said Haidar. Their mother died last year.

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Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Preparing sfeeha and warak enab takes time, making them a perfect social activity. “You want to serve the grape leaves cool, so you don’t make them the day of the dinner. We get together the day before, sit down with coffee and roll them and talk. Many hands make light work,” said Yassine.

On the day of the dinner, Yassine is the main chef and Haidar says she assists.

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There will be a yogurt and cucumber salad and perhaps hashwet al-djaj, a dish of rice with spiced ground beef, almonds, pistachios and pine nuts. “Our mom would make this and stuff a small chicken, plus make a dish to serve on the side. It’s a great alternative to bread stuffing,” said Haidar.

Another addition to the table may be a bread basket with puff pastry twists, adapted by Yassine from the breadsticks that are street food in Lebanon. “I made them a little fancier using puff pastry.”

No matter what dishes are on the final menu, their Lebanese American Thanksgiving will be a combination of beloved dishes and cherished family memories.

RECIPES

Sisters Farrah Haidar and Hala Yassine share recipes for traditional Lebanese dishes that will grace their Thanksgiving table.

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Akawi Twists

Akawi is a mildly salty Middle Eastern cow’s milk cheese, available at stores carrying Arabic groceries. The sisters shop for the cheese at Global Market or at Jerusalem Bakery, with locations in Marietta, Roswell and Alpharetta. The sisters say you can substitute grated mozzarella and also note that refrigerating the twists before you bake them helps the twists puff better. They also provided a variation using za’atar. Za’atar is a savory blend of dried herbs mixed with toasted sesame seeds, available at many grocery stores in the international food section, or where you shop for akawi. You will also find sumac there.

We prefer puff pastry made with butter like the brands available at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market.

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Za’atar variation: Combine 1/3 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup za’atar and 1/2 teaspoon sumac. Use in the Akawi Twists recipe, substituting the za’atar mixture for the mixed cheeses.

Per twist, Za’atar variation: 177 calories (percent of calories from fat, 74), 2 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 15 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 245 milligrams sodium.

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Tabbouleh

Before starting this recipe, wash the parsley and mint and let them dry thoroughly.

Bulgur is cracked parboiled wheat, available at many grocery stores as well as at shops carrying Arabic groceries. If you can choose between grinds of bulgur, the sisters recommend #2 for this recipe.

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Stuffed Grape Leaves (Warak Enab)

Before starting this recipe, wash the parsley and mint and let them dry thoroughly.

You may need more or fewer potatoes than called for in the recipe. The goal is to cover the bottom of the Dutch oven with a layer of potato rounds. In our photo, the potatoes were removed from the inverted grape leaves and arranged around the dish. The cooked tomatoes were discarded.

Note that when adding salt and pepper to the rice mixture, you want the mixture to taste a little salty since this is also the salt that will season the rice as it cooks.

When arranging the grape leaves for cooking, you’ll want at least 1 1/2 inches of space above the stacked bundles to make room for boiling liquid, and the plate and weight that keep the stuffed grape leaves below the level of the liquid. If you have more stuffed grape leaves than will fit comfortably in your Dutch oven, arrange the remainder in a saucepan and cook using the same method.

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Maha’s Spiral Meat Pies (Sfeeha)

Haidar remembers these as her mother’s signature dish. “These are paper-thin, crispy, buttery dough, stuffed with spiced meat and made into a spiral. They can be served as an appetizer or as part of the main meal.”

Pomegranate molasses and sumac can be found at some grocery stores or in stores that carry Arabic groceries. The family prefers King Arthur all-purpose flour for the dough and says you can make the dough by hand if you prefer, kneading for about 14 minutes or until the dough is shiny and feels elastic.

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