The Lebanese consider it an honor to have guests in their home. Jeanette Chawki, therefore, wants to make her students comfortable as much as she wants to share her passion for the cooking of her homeland. Her position as an instructor for League of Kitchens, a New York culinary program through which immigrants teach intimate cooking workshops in their homes, allows her to do both.
Despite the wars that plagued Lebanon, Chawki enjoyed a relatively peaceful life that centered around religion, family and food — the same three things that define her life today in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, N.Y., where she moved with her family in 2006.
She would like to help more Americans discover the flavors and ingredients of Lebanese cuisine. “It is … so fresh and healthy,” she says. “Growing up, everything came from our own garden. There was fresh mint, cucumbers, cherry trees, green plum trees, grape vines … don’t let me remember it all, or I will start crying.”
Chawki was born in Zahle, Lebanon, a city in the mountains about an hour from Beirut. She describes it as a beautiful town in the valley along a river, dotted with small restaurants and cafes. She grew up there with her three sisters and three brothers within a large extended family and close-knit community.
Remembering her mother’s kibbeh nayyeh (raw beef mixed with fine bulgur and spices) brings a huge smile to her face.
“[M]y brothers and sisters and I would sit around this large, hollowed-out rock where she would pound the meat against the stone with a large mallet until it was perfectly minced,” she says. “We waited for her to offer us the first bites of fresh kibbeh. It was so special and delicious.”
I spoke with Chawki recently as she stood over the stove, blanching dandelion greens in small batches for that evening’s dinner. “[I]n Catholicism, we eat only vegetarian on Wednesdays,” she explains. “It seems easier, but cooking vegetables can be a lot of work.”
She offers me a variety of flatbreads, filled with za’atar (a blend of wild thyme and other herbs), cheese and Aleppo pepper along with freshly made labneh (strained Lebanese yogurt), pita and tea. Leftover kousa mahshi (stuffed eggplant and zucchini in tomato sauce) from last night’s meal and a scoop of Lebanese bread pudding follow. Between courses, we chat and look at photos her sons are texting from their summer vacation in Lebanon.
Chawki began her career as a French teacher for elementary school children, and it’s easy to imagine her in that role. She exudes happiness and enthusiasm with her bright sing-song voice, huge smile and fun-loving nature. Her zest for life and sense of humor apparently helped to attract her future husband.
“My friend and I worked in a jewelry store by the highway, and we pretended that handsome men driving by were coming for us,” she says. Chawki’s future husband was driving by and noticed her standing outside the shop. “My friend told me that he was coming for me. I waved to him and smiled, and he pulled up in a beautiful car. I chased him, and I caught him,” she says with a laugh. They were engaged for one month and married in 1988.
Although she had helped in the family kitchen growing up, a desire to impress her husband with delicious food inspired Chawki to begin cooking seriously. She asked her mother and relatives for recipes and learned through trial and error. An aunt taught her the secrets of great taboulleh (parsley salad with bulgur), but it took Chawki years to perfect it and make it her own. “I always adapted a recipe to make it more delicious and add a special touch,” she says. “Everyone always says my food tastes different from the rest.” She first cooked kibbeh (a fried croquette stuffed with spiced minced beef) for her husband, and it is still one of his favorite dishes.
Chawki and her husband had a daughter in 1991 followed by sons in 1993 and 1995. They moved to the U.S., she says, to provide greater opportunities for their children and to remove them from the instability and upheaval in Lebanon. Chawki’s brother, who lives in Staten Island, sponsored her family and helped them move to Bay Ridge.
Middle Eastern grocery shops line the main streets of Bay Ridge, and Chawki found everything she needed to cook Lebanese dishes in her New York home. She was inspired to begin catering after bringing dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) to a party for her English as a Second Language class. The instructor said the grape leaves were one of the best things she had ever eaten, and encouraged Chawki to consider cooking professionally. She now often caters small gatherings and larger special events including office parties, birthdays and weddings.
Chawki especially enjoys baking desserts. “I like the challenge,” she says. “I love watching the dough become something totally different as it cooks in the oven. The end product is rewarding because of all of the work that went into it.”
She enjoys teaching students baking and cooking techniques in her League of Kitchens’ workshops and sharing stories about Lebanese cuisine and culture as the group prepares a traditional meal.
“Jeanette was amazing in providing insight to not only Lebanese cuisine but to the stories/narratives that make food as a cultural vehicle so important,” says Yvette Ramirez, a recent student.
Chawki’s students are particularly impressed by her warm hospitality as she hosts and teaches them in her home kitchen. “Jeanette was so delightful and the food was delicious. I was really touched by her generosity and openness,” says Glory Edim, another workshop participant.
Food and hospitality.
In Lebanon, Jeanette Chawki and her friends would invite each other over at 3 p.m. for an afternoon snack of tabbouleh salad. Although tabbouleh salad is mainly parsley, tomato and bulgur, each of her friends would add a personal touch. Chawki’s special recipe uses lots of fresh lemon juice, her homemade dried mint and hints of clove. She plates her salad on a bed of crisp romaine leaves. She eats the tabbouleh using the romaine hearts as an edible spoon.
(Recipe courtesy of Jeanette Chawki and the League of Kitchens)
- 2 tablespoons #1 fine bulgur* (see Cook’s Notes)
- 1 head baby romaine
- 3 vine-ripe tomatoes, finely diced
- 3 bunches fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely shaved** (see Cook’s Notes)
- ½ cup fresh lemon juice
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons dried mint leaves, crushed
- ⅛ teaspoon Aleppo pepper*** (see Cook’s Notes)
- 2 teaspoons fine salt
- Pinch ground cloves
In a small bowl, place the bulgur, rinse with warm water and drain.
Separate the romaine leaves. Tear off the dark green leathery parts of the outer leaves and layer them one on top of the other. Tightly roll them up into a cigar shape and finely slice. Reserve the light crisp romaine leaves.
In a colander over a bowl, place the tomatoes and leave until the juice and most of the seeds have drained, about 5 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine the slivered romaine, chopped tomatoes, shaved parsley and bulgur. Just before serving, pour in the lemon juice and olive oil, and sprinkle with the dried mint, Aleppo pepper, salt and ground cloves. Toss well until all the ingredients are combined.
To serve, line a dish with the light crisp romaine leaves so that the tips of the leaves are pointing outward. Pour the tabbouleh in the center. Serve portions of tabbouleh salad resting on the fresh romaine leaves.
*Bulgur is a Middle Eastern staple made from durum wheat. Wheatberries are parboiled then dried and cracked into 4 distinct grinds ranging from fine to coarse. The number 1 refers to fine cracked bulgur and number 4 refers to coarse bulgur. These numbers can usually be found on the package label. Bulgur can be found in most supermarkets and Middle Eastern markets.
**Chawki has a meticulous way of preparing parsley. She carefully washes it in cold water and ensures that it is completely dry before she cuts it. To get a fine shave, Chawki divides the parsley into small bunches and ties them with a rubber band. This keeps all the leaves aligned so she does not include any part of the parsley stem. She then carefully runs her knife along the edges of the leaves to get a fine shave which results in a light and fluffy tabbouleh salad.
***Aleppo pepper is a dried red pepper popular in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. It has a medium spice level and a subtle sweetness.