London makes quite a few appearances in this blog purely because that’s where I grew up and have, not only my fondest memories, but the most vivid ones. I moved to London at a young age but since I was old enough to be aware and spent my school years there, I have wonderful memories.
I don’t talk too much about my time in Saudi and only because I have flashes of my time there. I was born in Saudi and though I only lived there for a short time, my memories are happy ones. I have no Middle Eastern ancestry, but happened to be born there because my parents moved a few years beforehand for work.
Mostly it was hot, and I believe it still is! But for all the heat, I still played outside in front yard of our house with my sister, enjoyed picnics in the date groves and BBQ’s at the beach. It maybe a sandbox, but it has its own beauty.
To accommodate our big family back then (there were 8 of us) my dad ordered a huge 1976 Cadillac Deville straight from the factory in Detroit. I remember the day it arrived, beautiful, silver with red leather and big, boy was it big. It still had the temporary Michigan plates and as a youngster, I was just gob smacked. I have photos which I would’ve loved to share but they’re all back in Houston with my dad. I will remember to get them when I go back later this month.
The boot of this thing was massive. So massive that when we went on our picnics, my dad would open up the back and all us little kids would climb in and that’s where we ate, sitting in the boot of the Cadillac. I think there’s a photo of that too!
I’d just like to say that this car moved with us to England where it was way too big for the little English countryside roads. When we moved to Houston, it travelled with us then too. In fact, I learned to drive in this beloved Cadillac. We finally laid it to rest many years ago but it was my companion for many, many years.
Apparently, good food was important to me back then as well. Many of my flashes of memory, are food memories. The juicy rotisserie chicken spinning away at the bakery where my dad would pick up some hot loves of Arabic bread and a chicken for dinner. I can still taste it to this day, moist and tender with a hint of lemony flavour.
The shawarmas are ingrained in my taste buds too; slices of tender chicken or lamb, stuffed inside a warm pita bread with pickles, potatoes, tomatoes and lots of tahini sauce. And let’s not forget the famous lamb and rice kabsa; a whole lamb, spit roasted sitting atop mounds of glistening, golden rice. What made it even more fun was digging into this huge tray of food alongside others, communal style, all pinching off meat with our fingers and shaping a little mound of rice with our right fingers to scoop up to our mouths. Food tastes so much better when fingers are digging in, feeling the food, grasping it and transporting it to the taste buds.
I have vague memories of the family who lived across from our house, they were Arabs and wonderful people. I can’t remember them at all really, but I know there were grown children, sons and daughters. My sister and I would spend time at their home and we were always welcome. We would just walk across to their house unannounced and they would include us in their day and we would sit with them to eat. Their courtyard had an overhead trellis were bunches of grapes hung, dangling from amongst the leaves. I remember this because I was fascinated by how the grapes grew, in masses draping themselves through large leaves. They were incredibly sour and I realise now that they weren’t grown for the fruit but for the vine leaves. Stuffed grape leaves are some of the best things on this planet.
Our neighbours to the left were an American family, My very first friend was the boy who lived next door, John. For years and even to this day, my uncle asks about my “boyfriend” John. So, John, if you happen to be reading this and you lived in Saudi in the 70’s next door to a scrawny Indian looking girl, that’s me!
So many wonderful memories of family, friends and food. The best apples and pears I ate were in Saudi, they actually smelled like apples and pears and their fragrance was intoxicating. Even today, when I pick up a pear to buy, I smell it, trying to get a hit of that fragrance I remember. The seafood, the kebabs, the sandwiches….In fact, one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten was at a fancy restaurant there.
Just as we were getting ready to leave Saudi for England, my aunts and uncles moved there and so began a tradition of family members living in Saudi. I had opportunity to return a few more times and I hope I get to go again since Saudi houses two of the most important Islamic holy sites.
My uncle and a few cousins still live there and my brother just returned from Saudi a few months ago. So, even though there is no Middle Eastern blood coursing through our veins, the Middle East is very much a part of our ancestry now.
That probably explains my love for all Arabic food. I have grown up eating it, and it is present at every family gathering and it’s one of the first things we cook after Indian.
These delicious spinach fatayer or pies, are common throughout the Middle East and the Levant. My children love them and I always used to buy them because they’re not expensive, and buying them fresh from the bakery they were still warm and so good. Of course, this was in Houston.
The Denver stores have them too but they are not warm and fresh out of the oven. I did pick up a couple of bags of spinach pies last time I was at the Middle Eastern store and they were done in a day. I decided to make my own variation with feta.
These were wonderful, warm and soft bread with a lemony filling of spinach and feta. I used part white and part whole wheat, just to make them a bit healthier. I also don’t like my filling overly tart, so I dialled back the lemon a bit, but feel free to increase the lemon (not too much because you don’t want the filling too wet) These lasted about 3 days. They are a great snack and a wonderful picnic or lunch bag idea.
Soft, fluffy and tangy Middle Eastern spinach and feta pies
2 cups/300g bread flour
2 cups/300g white whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons (or 1 package) yeast
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons olive oil
1½ cups/355ml warm water
1lb/455g spinach, fresh or frozen
4 green onions, chopped fine
2 teaspoons lemon juice
salt, to taste
½ cup Feta cheese
In the bowl of a stand mixer mix the flours, salt, sugar and the yeast.
Add the olive oil and the warm water, a little at time until a dough forms.
You may need more or less water depending on the flour.
Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic.
Place the ball of dough in a greased bowl, cover and place in a warm area.
Allow the dough to double in size, about 90 minutes (45 minutes if high altitude)
While the dough is resting and rising, make the filling.
If using fresh spinach, place the spinach in a microwaveable bowl and microwave for about 5 minutes until soft and wilted.
Or, place in a pan with a drop of water and allow to steam and wilt.
Drain the spinach and squeeze out all the water.
You may need to wrap the spinach in a towel to get out all the excess water.
Once the spinach is dry, chop it into small pieces.
If using frozen, defrost and squeeze out all the water.
Place the dry spinach in a bowl, add the green onions, feta cheese and lemon juice.
Check to taste for salt and lemon juice.
Don't make the filling too wet, it will be hard to seal the pies.
Preheat the oven to 350F/180C
Once the dough has doubled in size. slowly punch down the dough.
Place on a clean counter and knead gently.
Cut the dough into 16 pieces.
Roll out one piece of dough into a 5 inch/13 cm circle.
Drop a rounded tablespoon of filling onto the centre of the dough.
Pull up one side of the dough and seal.
Pull up the other side and make a tri tip seal.
I didn't need any water to seal but if you're having a problem getting the edges to seal, use a bit of water or flour paste to seal.
Keep the pie aside.
Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough.
Place on a couple of cookie sheets and place in he oven
Bake until golden brown and puffy, about 20 minutes.
See warm or room temperature.
They store really well in the fridge for a quick snack or packed lunches.
You can use all purpose flour for all or part of the flours. White whole wheat is great to use because it is soft but is still a while wheat flour. This dough makes great pita bread if you decide to make only a few fatayer and a few homemade pita bread. Just bake the pita bread on a hot pizza stone or a heated cookie sheet. It has perfect pita pockets!
I hope spring or fall is making an appearance in your part of the world. Colorado spring is very much like winter so we really see no difference! Lots and lots of snow signifies spring for us, so I guess spring might very well be here! I haven’t been able to see any new blossoms or buds yet though, but maybe the several inches of snow might possibly be covering them up.
Have a great week!
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