I Found a Recipe in Olives, Lemons & Za'atar That Changed My Life

Cookbook Review

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Item: Olives, Lemons & Za'atar by Rawia Bishara
Price: $29.95
Overall Impression: A vivid and beautiful book, from the design to the stories and recipes.

The chef and owner of Tanoreen restaurant in Brooklyn, Rawia Bishara grew up in Nazareth. Her cookbook features the traditional Palestinian-Arab foods she grew up with, as well as new dishes influenced by her experiences in Europe and New York City. Focused on home cooking, the book is warm and vibrant, from the color photographs by Peter Cassidy to Bishara's stories about family traditions.

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Recipes I Tried

Being vegetarian, dairy-free, and gluten-free, I found lots of recipes in Olives, Lemons & Za'atar that were compatible with my diet. In fact, that's one reason I have always gravitated towards Middle Eastern food: even if the main dishes contain meat, the abundant mezze, salads, and sides are typically vegan-friendly. This cookbook also includes five vegetarian main courses and a few gluten-free desserts.

That said, with 135 recipes in all, the book also features plenty of fish and shellfish, chicken, lamb, and beef, wheat-based flatbreads, bulgur wheat, and other traditional foods. Eventually I'll try to adapt some of those dishes, but for the purposes of this review I stuck to recipes I could follow exactly:

  • Eggs with Za'atar (Bayid bi za'atar) - p. 16
  • Tanoreen's Specialty Fava Beans (Foul alla Tanoreen) - p. 24
  • Beet Salad (Salatet shamandar) - p. 69
  • Cauliflower Salad (Salatet zahra) - p. 75
  • Baked Eggplant (Siniyat el fokrra) - p. 114
  • Kale with Shallots and Olive Oil (Khubezeh) - p. 176
  • Jasmine Rice with Pine Nuts and Raisins (Roz bel mazaher) - p. 182
  • Thick Tahini Sauce - p. 195
  • Flourless Tangerine Apricot Cake - p. 208
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How It Went

I know it sounds over the top to say a recipe was life-changing, but Eggs with Za'atar? Life-changing. You see, I often find eggs totally unappetizing yet force myself to eat them because they give me energy. Choking down eggs is not fun and I've really been struggling with breakfast lately. But as soon as I tasted these eggs, I wanted seconds. I think about them all the time! The recipe is basically eggs in a basket topped with savory za'atar and tangy sumac — so simple yet so flavorful.

Eggs with Za'atar captures what I like most about the cookbook: the easy ways that everyday, home-cooked ingredients can be transformed with a sprinkle of herbs, spices, and Middle Eastern condiments. Roasted cauliflower is dressed up with tahini and pomegranate molasses. Sautéed kale gets an aromatic hit of coriander and cumin. Boiled beets become exciting with pesto and fresh herbs. Za'atar, sumac, pomegranate molasses — these are things I already had in my pantry and it was fun to discover new ways to use them.

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I did have a few quibbles with quantities of ingredients in the recipes. In the introduction the author mentions her liberal use of lemon juice and encourages cooks to season to their liking. I found things to be on the overly lemony side (and I'm usually the first to add more lemon) as well as under-salted, but fortunately those are easy things to adjust. I thought the Baked Eggplant recipe called for too much water and I had to bake it much longer to get the liquid to evaporate. Many of the recipes call for a massive amount of olive oil and/or nuts, and I think these could be reduced to save money and resources without affecting flavor too much.

Although I was quite inspired by the savory recipes I tried, I was less impressed with the Flourless Tangerine Apricot Cake. The recipe was missing the step explaining when to add the tangerines, had a typo, and seemed like it could have been more streamlined. As far as flavor and texture it was good, but not great.

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Final Takeaway

With its focus on home cooking, the scope of this book goes much deeper than typical Middle Eastern restaurant fare in the US. I really appreciated Bishara's approach, which is not "rigidly authentic" but rather defined by "creative flourishes." The recipes in her book honor tradition while keeping things fresh. As a result Olives, Lemons & Za'atar may be useful to a range of cooks who are more or less familiar with Middle Eastern cuisine, looking for classics as well as new inspiration.

Find It! Olives, Lemons & Za'atar, $29.95 at Amazon

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Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to test and review products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this review are the personal views of the reviewer and this particular product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. However, the manufacturer did give us the product for testing and review purposes.

(Image credits: Emily Han)