Friday, March 21, 2008

Halloumi, Ras el Hanout, and Richmond's Best Baba Ghanouj

Baba ghanouj is often associated with hummus, because they're both thick and pasty middle eastern dips that involve garlic and tahini. But, when done right, the two couldn't be more different. Rather than offering a needless comparison between softened chickpeas and roasted eggplants, the two dips' main ingredients, I want to help you get your hands on some good baba ghanouj. Hummus of varying qualities is available all over the place. But, good baba is like caviar, or a fine cheese, with an intoxicating flavor and a silky smooth texture. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for anything that tastes smoked.

My current favorite baba ghanouj is from the Mediterranean Market at Broad and Meadow. It's about $3-5 or so for a small or medium size container. The profoundly smoky dip is swimming in olive oil and topped with diced tomato and parsley. He's fairly new in that location, but Abraham brings a lot of know how from years of slinging falafels at Alladins. Now, he's stocked all of his favorite grocery items to go along with his prepared foods, and select butchery items. On this visit, Abraham got me to buy meat.

"You're still vegetarian, right?" he always asks me, with a hint of disappointment. Yeah, but my wife eats meat. Abraham perks up. "You have got to come back on Thursday. I get the best lamb, chicken..." he continues the list, but I politely change the subject to a more appetizing topic. Well, that's how the conversation usually goes. But on this visit, it was Thursday, and the meat case was full. Since it was such a nice day out, I figured I should grill and chill on the porch with a beer. But, I'm not completely selfish. A package of "beef chunks" would be Karen's surprise for the night. But, how would I make them extra special? Answer: an exotic spice rub for the meat and a side of grilled halloumi cheese. First, the spice:

On the most recent episode of Top Chef, one of the dishes combined beets and something called "ras el hanout" (pronounced: rawz el han-oot). Tonight, while rifling through the cupboard for a premade spice rub that I could use to coat and crustify the beef chunks for Karen's kabobs, I discovered a previously unnoticed package of ras el hanout. WTF? As it turns out, ras el hanout is an aromatic spice rub of North African origin, sort of like a curry, but lighter and impossibly fragrant. It smells so delicious that I can see why they say it's an aphrodisiac. Karen loved her seasoned steak tips, but the stuff I cooked with didn't come from Morocco, spiked with Spanish Fly. Karen brought this stuff back from World Market in Short Pump ("Product of USA" says the package). They have all kinds of neat spices in one ounce packages for $1-$2. If you're like me, a good bargain might get you in the mood quicker than ground up beetles.

I was introduced to halloumi cheese recently at the Phoenician. The strong tasting dense sheep's milk cheese is apparently a fairly well known appetizer at Greek and Lebanese restaurants. But I haven't been to many of either for one reason or another. I haven't even had saganaki, which probably makes me a degenerate. So, whenever I find myself playing cultural catch up, I try a little DIY, so I can learn the ropes quickly.

Halloumi can be had in the dairy case Abraham's (although he recommended a different one for grilling. Was it nabulsi?). Later for that. I was on a mission. Fast forward to the cooking. With just minutes of grilling left for my other dishes, I slathered olive oil on the block of tough cheese and put it on the medium heat area of my charcoal grill - two minutes per side and it was beautifully golden with tantalizing char marks (sorry, no pics - too hungry. wait for the grilling guide entry). I sliced it into half inch fingers, drizzled more olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice (Bobby Flay recommends oregano, whatever). Mmmmm, so chewy and salty. Now, I'm really getting curious about middle eastern cheeses. But, not shanklish. Never again for that one.


  1. Just need the time and place of the tastings... Also, are you going to do various hummus' and baba ghanouj on one night and the cheeses on another or all in one fell swoop?

  2. Karen has informed me that she ate saganake once or twice a week at the old Lighthouse, on Main. A gregarious greek owner would ply her with drinks and bring out the flaming plate of cheese to her delight. Where the hell was I back then? Probably attending social justice meetings and dumpster diving for expired tempeh. So, I'm a little late to the party. I hope these posts are informative for someone out there and not just an egotistical brain dump. Tastings, tba.

  3. i miss the lighthouse. oh, the saganaki and the cheesecake! we used to eat flaming cheese for a meal and then eat cheesecake for dessert. i was skinnier then. :)

  4. Love the food at the Phoenician, especially their yoghurt appetizer. I hope Richmond diners find this smart restaurant.


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