As the daughter of a Lebanese-American father, my family often enjoyed typical, tasty American weeknight meals like spaghetti and meatballs, but they were always overshadowed by our awe-inspiring Lebanese feasts on the weekends. My relatives would all gather together and make traditional recipes from memory — I remember watching as my great aunt casually flaunted her skills, hollowing out a zucchini with just a few twists of the wrist, to be stuffed later with pine nuts and rice for koosa. Tabbouli, with its lemony zing, gave parsley life beyond mere garnish. I suddenly loved “meatloaf” (aka kibbe pie) when it was made with lamb and had an extra crunchy crust.
Lebanese cuisine is packed with vibrant flavors and healthy ingredients that define the Mediterranean diet. The coastal country sits at the crossroads of the ancient spice route, and ingredients like za’atar, lentils, bulgur, nuts, and olive oil brighten every meal of the day, from breakfast to dessert. Thankfully, we can now find many recipes online that don’t take days to prepare, but are just as memorable as the foods I grew up with. Lebanese food, like the country, is a mosaic of influences from all over the Middle East, so while the classic dips of hummus and baba ghanoush may be the best-known dishes, we’re going beyond those, diving into the diverse world of Lebanese cooking.
1. Foul Medames (Fava Bean Dip)
Beans for breakfast? While lots of people start the day with a sugar rush, the traditional Lebanese breakfast is built around nourishing, deeply savory dishes. This vegan fava bean dip is a morning staple served with pita bread. Fava beans, also known as broad beans, are one of the few legumes native to the Mediterranean — and they’re not only a powerhouse of nutrients, they may also protect against Parkinson’s disease. Fresh favas are an increasingly common sight at springtime farmers’ markets, but if you don’t have hours to shell and peel (or a slow cooker), the canned beans in the recipe work just as well.
2. Fatayer (Spinach Pie)
These cinnamon-scented hand pies are packed with enough virtuous ingredients that you might forget it’s a pastry. We all know that spinach makes us stronger (aye aye, Popeye!) since it’s a rich source of iron and vitamins A and C. Plus, pine nuts add a little hit of healthy fat, and studies show they may reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Unbaked fatayer freeze beautifully, making them a perfect big batch candidate — and that’s a good thing since it’s impossible to eat just one. Try baking these with fiber-rich whole-grain Sonora flour from Grist & Toll.
3. Manakish with Za’atar (Spiced Flatbread)
This flatbread is a typical Lebanese appetizer that pops up at all meals, but particularly at breakfast. I like this recipe for its liberal use of brain-boosting za’atar, a spice blend with a toasty, lemony flavor chock full of oregano, thyme, and sumac. You can find za’atar at Kalustyans or at your local gourmet market. Feel free to enliven manakish with red pepper paste, adding a quarter cup to the za’atar and olive oil mixture. The sweet-spicy paste is a short-cut pantry staple that can be swirled into stews, soups, sauces, and much more.
4. Labneh (Strained Yogurt)
While hummus is the most iconic dip of Lebanon, labneh — a decadently creamy yogurt – is its workhorse. It’s the spread you never knew you needed: Slather it on wraps and sandwiches as a mayo substitute, dollop it over sautéed greens, or use it as a dip for grilled meat. Not to mention, it pairs well with fatayer and manakish (above). In addition to the probiotic health benefits of yogurt, eating it on a regular basis may protect against some forms of cancer. Make sure to buy a high-quality plain yogurt for this recipe.
5. Muhammara Dip (Red Pepper and Walnut Dip)
One thing is for sure: cooking Lebanese food will up your dip game. Take muhammara, a sweet, earthy dip that’s been waiting in the wings to take the spotlight. The recipe features toasted walnuts, red bell peppers, and pomegranate molasses, a combination of unexpected flavors that doesn’t skimp on nutrition. Walnuts boast a wide range of health benefits from cholesterol reduction to protection against heart disease, and sweetly tart pomegranate molasses is a delectable antioxidant heavy-hitter. Serve it the traditional way with pita bread, or get creative and use it as a vegetable dip or sandwich spread.
6. Toum (Lebanese Garlic Paste)
If you’ve ever had Lebanese take-out, you’ve probably tried this addictive garlic paste that comes in frustratingly small plastic containers. What you really want is an entire vat — it’s that good. I like to spread it on barbecued chicken, but it’s a foolproof way to amp up the flavor in all kinds of dishes, from crudités to falafel. While this recipe calls for quite a bit of oil, you can swap out the canola for heart-healthy avocado oil, which has been shown to reduce cholesterol. Avoid olive oil, as the flavor will overpower the paste.
7. Koosa (Stuffed Zucchini)
Zucchinis are so bountiful — the poster child of the squash family — that it’s easy to take them for granted. But they have positive effects on eyes, skin, and heart, so it’s worth looking for new ways to enjoy them. Fortunately, koosa fits the bill: Stuffed with rice, lamb, and spices, this simple squash is hollowed out using a zucchini corer (or if you have impressive knife skills, a paring knife). Be sure not to peel the zucchini, as the delicate skin is the most nutritious part. In this recipe, the koosa simmer in yogurt sauce, but it’s just as delightful in tomato sauce.
8. Tabbouli (Parsley and Bulgur Salad)
There’s no law that says a green salad must include lettuce. Parsley is often relegated to garnish status, but tabbouli is one salad that lets this disease-fighting herb shine. It’s a particularly rich source of vitamin K, which promotes bone health and calcium absorption. I love tabbouli because it features another unsung nutritional hero: Bulgur. This mild-flavored whole grain is made from cracked wheat and provides fiber, protein, and a variety of vitamins and minerals. It’s a recipe that keeps on giving.
9. Mudardara (Lentils and Rice)
This traditional vegetarian rice dish is a delicious expression of Lebanese cooking, given its subtle spices and versatility. Mudardara provides a nutritious break from ordinary rice, and it’s also high in protein, thanks to the addition of tender lentils, which are prized for their significant levels of magnesium, potassium, and iron. Often served at room temperature as the main course, mudardara also works with a variety of toppings. Feel free to play around by adding sliced radishes, chopped mint, and dollops of labneh. It also makes a wonderful all-purpose side that goes with any protein.
10. Kibbe Pie (Meat and Bulgur Pie)
Imagine a meatloaf with an extra golden-brown crust and no soggy middle: This is why I fell in love with kibbe as a child. One of the secrets to a non-greasy meat pie is the smart addition of bulgur. The nutritious whole grain adds texture and much-needed contrast to the ground meat. This recipe calls for extra-lean beef, but I grew up using lamb, which is richer in CLAs (conjugated linoleic acid) and linked to various health benefits. Either way, buy grass-fed and ask your butcher to grind the meat three times for best results. The recipe’s distinct flavor comes from Lebanese seven-spice blend, a mix that can be found at Novin Herbs & Spices. (It also makes a great rub for meats.)
11. Freekeh with Chicken (Ancient Grain with Chicken and Almonds)
Freekeh, a super tasty ancient grain, has been gaining popularity in the U.S. It’s made from green wheat that is sun-dried and toasted by burning the chaff. Known for keeping blood sugar in check, it boasts way more protein and fiber than quinoa and is definitely worth seeking out. It’s sold at Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, and Sprouts, among other places. Switching from boring old chicken and rice to this flavor-packed recipe is a weeknight game-changer — and if I don’t happen to have Lebanese Seven Spice on hand, I improvise my own blend by mixing spices like black pepper, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, and cloves.
12. Baklava (Honey-Nut Dessert)
Ok, this buttery treat is not particularly healthy, but in the world of desserts, you could do worse. With its delicate layers of filo and honey-drenched nuts, who can resist? And baklava does have redeeming nutritional qualities including heart-healthy walnuts and pistachios, one of the best sources of brain-boosting vitamin B6. For a subtle perfume, try adding a few drops of delicate rosewater to the honey mixture. The popular Middle Eastern flavoring can be found at some supermarkets and online at The Spice House.
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