cookbook club: Flavors of the Sun

If you’re just joining us and would like to catch up on previous or cookbooks, you can catch up from the start HERE.  Our Autumn 2021 season of the 92nd Street Y and Kitchen Arts & Letters cookbook club was dedicated to exploring four distinct food stories that represent what is just the tip of the iceberg of food in New York City.

Flavors of the Sun by Christine Sahadi Whelan, the third book of our Flavors of New York cookbook club, was one of the two books this season that I felt the greatest personal connection to (along with our next book, Italian American). 

This book is subtitled The Sahadi’s Guide to Understanding, Buying, and Using Middle Eastern IngredientsSahadi’s Importing Co. on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn was my neighborhood grocery store when I was in culinary school in the early 1990s. I’m convinced that shopping there transformed the trajectory of my career and sent me on a decades-long adventure that only gets better as the journey continues!

autumn 2021 cookbook club featured books
all books are available at KitchenArtsandLetters.com

My first visit to Sahadi’s was like stepping back in time. It was autumn in pre-gentrified Brooklyn in a neighborhood that was home to a confluence of diasporas from the southern and eastern Mediterranean and Latin America. It’s been nearly 30 years now, so my memory for details is fuzzy – please forgive any inaccuracies! 

I walked into the west entrance to the shop right into a room filled with wooden barrels and huge glass jars brimming with colorful dried fruits and nuts, seeds, candies, grains, and sundries. Neighborhood nonas were stocking up on all the ingredients for their holiday baking – dates, dried figs, sultanas, candied citrus (the real kind), nuts – all destined for a long soak in spirit and spice before becoming panettone, panforte, fruitcakes, cuccidati, maamoul, and other age-old seasonal delicacies.

Beyond the barrels lay a bazaar of smells and tastes from every continent, heavy on those from the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. The dairy section at the back offered cases of every type of feta imaginable, and every type of yogurt or labneh. Another counter held sheets of halvah, baklavas, and cookies. Between them, a labyrinth of shelves stocked with aromatic spices, teas, condiments, and so many packages with names I’d never seen before in languages I couldn’t read. And then a bunch that I hadn’t seen since I was last in my Sicilian nona’s kitchen a million years ago. 

Every shopping trip was an adventure. Encouraged by the warm welcoming attendants (assuming they were, at least some of them, Sahadi family), I tasted my way through every type of feta, learned about labneh, harissa, pomegranate molasses, and rosewater. I purchased spices I’d never used, teas from far off lands, so many types of honey, and anything unfamiliar. I’d go home and learn to taste these items and then I’d research them at the library (the old-fashioned way before the internet). I’d try to learn anything I could about the places, flavors, and people who they belonged to. 

Later, I built my culinary career on flavor dynamics and the study of food in culture – particularly of the many diasporas that, like me, call NYC home. In a way, I have Sahadi’s to thank for that.

a little about Sahadi’s

During the same years as my own ancestors were arriving in NYC from the southern Mediterranean (1880-1920), so were at least “fifty thousand immigrants from areas now known as Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Palestine.” They settled on Manhattan’s lower west side. That’s where Abrahim Sahadi (from Lebanon) opened a store selling Middle Eastern foods in 1895. Sahadi’s Importing Company is now New York City’s oldest continually operating specialty food store. They now sell specialty goods from 6 continents.

Wade Sahadi, the author’s grandfather, opened the flagship store on Atlantic Avenue in 1948. The store was expanded to two storefronts in 1978, three in 2012. Their newest space is in Brooklyn Industry City, opened in 2018; it has a market, café, and an event space. Christine Sahadi Whelan, the author of this book, has been working in the shop since she was 8 years old. Today, she runs the place – along with her brother, cousins, and (since 2000) her husband.

There’s so much more to the story, and it’s all shared throughout this book in the characteristic warm, generous manner you’ll find in Sahadi’s stores when you’re ready for your next flavor adventure.

about the book

Flavors of the Sun is so much more than a cookbook. It’s an education in the flavors and ingredients of Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Greece, Turkey, and North Africa. Stories, information, and recipes are organized by flavor profile instead of by course or primary ingredient. To me, that was a plus. It’s like having five cookbooks in one since each section contains recipes for everything from appetizers to cocktails to desserts. For a few in our group, the set up was inconvenient – but not enough to draw harsh criticism. This book was certainly a group “all-time favorite.” 

Each flavor section: Bright, Savory, Spiced, Nutty, and Sweet, features several key ingredients. Things like sumac, pomegranate molasses, za’atar, mint, Aleppo pepper, harissa, tahini, and flower waters each have their own guides called “Ten More Ways to Use…” that make this book an invaluable resource. Especially for those of us who find ourselves buying a fortune worth of specialty ingredients and only know one way to use them. 

My pantry is getting so much more use now that I have this book! And it’s also growing because of the new ingredients I am just now learning about thanks to the wealth of information in here. I just learned about two new ingredients that I can’t wait to play with – mahlab (tiny, dried kernels from St. Lucie cherries used in sweet breads and desserts) and urfa peppers. 

Looking for menu ideas to bring all the new flavor discoveries together cohesively? There’s an entire menu section at the end of the book. 

about the author

Christine Sahadi Whelan is a fourth-generation co-owner of Sahadi’s and the company’s Culinary Director. She is a chef, trained at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in NYC.

the cooking part…

For each cookbook, I create a menu featuring a selection of recipes from the book in order to provide some structure for the prep and for our conversations. These are only suggestions, and many people experiment with whatever strikes their fancy. Here’s just a few of the recipes we chose from:

Breakfast

Lebanese Breakfast
Date Pecan Coconut Granola
Semolina Breakfast Pudding

Entrees
Barley Pilaf with Preserved Lemon and Garlic Relish
Millet Pilaf with Almonds and Feta
Layered Bulgur, Fennel, and Mint Salad with Pine Nuts
Classic Fattoush
Slow Roasted Harissa Salmon
Minted Baby Lamb Chops with Pomegranate Glaze
Sheet Pan Chicken with Sumac and Winter Squash

Desserts

White Chocolate Cranberry Cookies with Sumac Glaze
Hibiscus Shortbread Icebox Cookies
Pistachio Cheesecake with Kataifi Crust
Tahini Swirl Brownies
Rose Almond Olive Oil Cake

notes on what we cooked

Semolina Breakfast Pudding

Lovers of American Cream of Wheat will adore this recipe. I had a bunch of semolina in my pantry from making handmade pasta and was so happy to find another use for it. Although I enjoyed this for breakfast, it was even better as a comforting dessert paired with a black walnut old fashioned.

Classic Fattoush

Everything about this salad was satisfying. Crunchy fresh vegetables, tangy sumac, refreshing mint, bright lemony dressing, and lots of toasted pita to soak up all the goodness!

Sheet Pan Chicken with Sumac and Winter Squash

This was the group favorite. I think everyone in the group chose this. Some of us more than once! This is the ultimate weeknight sheet pan meal! I usually make it with bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs that are easy to stock the freezer with and always keep delicata squash in the house to make this on the fly!

Slow Roasted Harissa Salmon

This dish is one I used to buy from the prepared foods case at Sahadi’s for many years. So happy to have the recipe now. I think this one is a close second in popularity with our club to the chicken above. 

Hibiscus Shortbread Icebox Cookies

These cookies are a permanent stock item in my freezer now. I slice and bake them in my toaster oven for a quick treat. The hibiscus flower sugar that gets blended in and rolled on the edges is like tiny tart pop rocks of flavor in the rich butter shortbread!

Pistachio Cheesecake with Kataifi Crust

Although I didn’t personally make this one, two others did and swear it will be their fancy dessert go to for dinner parties throughout the holidays and beyond. I might have to get baking for New Year’s Eve dinner.

Have you cooked from Flavors of the Sun? I’d love to hear what your favorites dishes were. Leave a comment with your thoughts below!

As always, I want to thank Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore and the 92nd Street Y in NYC. 

If you missed this season’s club registration there’s still time to register for Winter 2022 – registration comes with new copies of all four of the selected books shipped to you from Kitchen Arts & Letters! Our live by Zoom sessions are scheduled for February 1 & 15, and March 1 & 15, 2022

Register HERE on the 92nd Street Y website. Our theme will be “Cooking Off the Beaten Path” – I’ll be writing more about it and the four books we’ll cook from here on this blog later this month!

If you would like to catch up with the past seasons’ books, you can get started HERE.

Sign up for my newsletter and follow @Wander.Eat.and.Tell on Instagram to be one of the first to know when registration opens for the Summer Cookbook Club!

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