What I’m really loving about living in Amman, so far, is how much closer to the land people seem to eat. You know all of that farm-to-table, sustainable, local, seasonal crap that we bang on about so much in the West? Well, they never really got away from those principles to begin with here, and although packaged, processed food has seeped into the grocery stores, the majority of food is harvested close by and eaten without much adornment. Much of the diet here is plant-based and eating anything but seasonally is just not done.
While part of me misses the ease of reaching into bags of already cleaned baby spinach when I’m making my smoothies in the morning, the spinach I buy here lasts a hell of a lot longer in the fridge. Fruits and vegetables here might look imperfect and dirty in the shops, but they taste amazingly fresh and are full of flavor. Celery, fennel, beets, green onions all come with their full, bountiful stalks – I have made salad from the leaves on celery stalks alone! My salad spinner has become my best friend as I spend a good amount of time trimming and cleaning all of my greens and herbs before storing them in the fridge, but once I do, because they’re so fresh, they never seem to go bad.
This Spring I’ve been introduced to molokhia, a dark herby green that sort of looks like spinach. It’s just slightly bitter when eaten raw, but when cooked in the traditional stew popular throughout the Levant and North Africa, it’s a thick, rich, veggie treat. It’s my brother-in-law’s favorite dish and as soon as word came he was visiting from the Caucasus my mother-in-law started cleaning giant plastic bags full of molokhia. The stems are removed and dark spots cleaned – and currently it’s at its freshest, I’m told. For your purposes, molokhia should be available at Arab markets, frozen like spinach. Now my mother-in-law scoffs at the idea of buying it frozen, but I’m doubtful that most of you would be able to find fresh near you.
Anyway, this week, I went to watch my mother-in-law prepare this special dish for lunch, learned a few tricks along the way. Like so many of the dishes I’ve learned from her, simplicity is key. Serve this with steamed rice and lemon for squeezing – I’ve been told that whenever you have a leafy green you absolutely must offer lemon.
Molokhia by Auntie Suzanne
one whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces
1 small yellow onion, halved
tablespoon of black peppercorns
4 whole cardamom
1 pound frozen chopped molohkia, thawed and squeezed dry
1 tomato, diced
5 tablespoons olive oil
8 cloves of garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste
First make the chicken stock by placing the chicken, onion, and spices in a large stockpot and cover with water. Simmer on the stovetop for 45 minutes. Remove the chicken and keep it warm until lunch is ready. Strain the stock and place it back in the pot you just cooked the chicken in. Add the molokhia and stir well to combine. The mixture will become quite thick as the green has a substance that thickens liquids – in order to keep the stew from becoming too stringy add the chopped tomato and incorporate. The acid of the tomato will work its magic. While this is cooking, in a small skillet heat the olive oil and add the garlic. Cook it just until toasted and on the verge of burning. Now dump the oil and garlic directly into the molokhia – this is called “tashe” because it makes a satisfying sizzling, swooshing noise as it hits the soup. Stir it all well, season and serve alongside the chicken with rice and lots of fresh lemon.