Jay Hajj is the owner of Mike’s City Diner in Boston’s South End, recognized as one of the best diners in the country. Mike’s serves quintessential fare: hearty breakfasts of eggs, meat, and potatoes or fluffy pancakes doused in syrup and, for lunch, Reubens, cheesesteaks, and triple-decker club sandwiches. Hajj’s new book, Beirut to Boston: A Cookbook, written with Kerry J. Byrne, explores the food Hajj recalls from his childhood growing up in war-torn Lebanon, as well as the varied influences of his adopted home.
Makes about 3 cups
Muhamarah is a red bell pepper paste that Hajj's mom used to make back in Beirut, typically as a dip for bread and vegetables or as a topping for manakish (flatbread). Today, he often uses it to marinate lamb or duck.
1 pound red bell peppers
½ cup walnuts
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons lemon juice
½ cup pomegranate syrup
1 teaspoon whole cumin, toasted and ground fine
½ cup bread crumbs
2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper (more for spicier flavor)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
6 ounces olive oil
Roast the whole bell peppers on top of a gas stovetop burner or over a grill fire until black and blistered on all sides. Place the peppers in paper bag and seal the top for about 30 minutes to steam them. Remove from the bag, cut peppers in half, and remove and discard the stems and seeds. Place the peppers and all the other ingredients except olive oil in a food processor. Puree into a thick paste. Scrape down the sides of food processor with a plastic spatula. Turn the processor back on and slowly add the oil until blended well. Serve as a party dip with pita bread, vegetables, or kebabs.
BRAISED CHICKEN WITH 50 CLOVES OF GARLIC
Serves 4 to 6
Chicken with garlic is one of Hajj's all-time favorite dishes, which he rediscovered on a return trip to Beirut. He's since made it a part of his personal repertoire, often cooking it for large gatherings.
1/3 cup sugar
Salt and black pepper
4 to 5 pounds chicken thighs
1 tablespoon Aleppo pepper
¼ cup olive oil
50 cloves garlic
½ cup cherry wine
2½ cups chicken stock
½ cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley, divided
Disssolve the sugar and 1/3 cup salt in 8 cups water in a large glass bowl. Add chicken and cover bowl with plastic wrap. Brine the chicken at least 4 hours or overnight in the refrigerator. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Pat the chicken dry and season with 1 tablespoon salt and the Aleppo pepper. Heat the olive oil to medium hot in a 6- to 8-quart Dutch oven or other heavy pot. Sear the chicken until well browned on both sides, about 4 minutes per side. Cook in batches if needed so as not to overcrowd the pan and cool off the oil. Transfer the chicken to a baking dish and pack together snugly.
Add the garlic to the pot and cook in the remaining oil and chicken scrapings until lightly browned, about 3 to 4 minutes, being careful not to overcook and burn. Stir the garlic gently while sauteeing to color on all sides. Add the cherry wine and stir with a wooden spoon to deglaze the pot until it boils and all the alcohol is cooked off, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the stock, lemon juice, and cumin. Bring to a boil for 4 to 5 minutes. Shut off the heat. Remove about a third of the garlic cloves from the pot and set aside. Add 2 tablespoons of parsley to the pot. Grind with an immersion blender until the garlic mixture becomes a thick sauce, being careful not to splash the very hot liquid on yourself, or mash and whisk it in the pot by hand. Test the flavor and season with salt and black pepper to taste. Pour the garlic mixture all over the chicken in the baking dish. Put the garlic cloves that were set aside on top of the chicken. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes. Garnish with the remaining parsley and season with salt and black pepper if necessary. Serve family style on the table.
TIP: A BETTER WAY TO PEEL GARLIC
NAMOURA (SEMOLINA COCONUT CAKE)
Serves up to 20
Hajj's family grew up with this dessert around the holidays and it was always one of his favorites, with the soft semolina cake, almost like a spongecake, topped with an almond for texture and doused in a delicious simple syrup that melts into the cake. Perfect with coffee!
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon orange blossom water
20 whole almonds
2 cups No. 1 or No. 2 fine semolina
½ cup sugar
1 cup shredded coconut
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup whole-milk yogurt
8 tablespoons melted butter
Butter for greasing pan
To make the simple syrup, put the sugar, ½ cup water, and lemon zest in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, whisking occasionally. Reduce heat to a gentle boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Whisk in lemon juice and orange blossom water. Let cool to room temperature.
To make the cake, begin with blanching the almonds by placing them in boiling water. Remove immediately from the heat and let sit in the hot water for 20 minutes. Drain the almonds. The skins should now be easy to remove by squeezing the almonds with your fingers. Set the almonds aside.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine the semolina, sugar, coconut, baking soda, and baking powder in a bowl and whisk together well. Add yogurt and melted butter. Mix well with hands until you have a firm batter. Grease a 9-by-13-inch brownie pan with butter. Spread the batter evenly across the pan. Smooth the top of the batter with a wet hand or the back of a wet tablespoon. The batter should be both even and very smooth.
Lightly score the cake into 20 individual squares. Press an almond into each square so that the almond is even with the top of the batter. Bake 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Remove the cake from the oven. Pour the cool syrup over the baked cake while the cake is still hot, so that it will absorb the syrup. Let cool and serve at room temperature.Jay Hajj is the chef and owner of Mike’s City Diner. He lives with his wife and their four children outside Boston. Kerry J. Byrne is a longtime food writer for the Boston Herald. His writing has appeared in Esquire, Yankee Magazine, Boston magazine,and Conde Nast publications. He lives in Quincy. Excerpted from “Beirut to Boston” by Jay Hajj, Page Street Publishing. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.