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Vegetarian pies: they kept us healthy on the farm. By Habeeb Salloum

Issue #87 • May/June, 2004

Delicate, flavorful, and very satisfying are the descriptions with which a number of culinary experts label the countless pies or turnovers found in every country on earth. It is said that if all snack foods are ranked in order, these would, without question, lead the list. Filled with an infinite combination of stuffing, they are, in the main, delicious, nutritious, and simple to prepare.

As a child, I will always remember the aroma flowing out of the kitchen when, after returning from school, I opened the door to our home. The mouth-watering smell of baking vegetarian and, at times, meat pies would increase my hunger pangs a hundred fold. No matter what type of pie mother was making that day, the smell from the kitchen would always ensnare me in its culinary bewitching web.

My mother seemed to have a never-ending storehouse of ideas for new types of pies. This was especially true in summer and autumn when our garden overflowed with vegetables. With no type of refrigeration at our disposal, during the warm months we ate very little meat. Hence, her vegetarian pies were a welcome addition to our diet. For lunch, snacks, or main courses, they were always delicious and memorable. Their memories have always lingered with me. For many years I have never tired of replicating my mother's pies and developing numerous other versions.

Known in the eastern Arab-speaking lands as sambousik, fatayer, or lahme bi ajeen, they are always to be found on the housewife's daily menu. For school lunches, snacks at home, or a meal a wife carries to her husband working the fields, pies, especially spinach, are usually included. When leaving their homelands, like our family, to other countries, the emigrants from the Middle East never forget their pies, especially those freshly baked, perfuming the home with their seductive pungency.

In that part of world, from the tiny sambousik to the larger fatayer or lahme bi ajeen, they are often offered as a savory and appetizing fast food. People enjoy munching them on the streets, their enticing aromas flowing from small bakeries and restaurants too overpowering to resist. The first thing I do when I reach Damascus, Beirut, or any other urban center in the Middle East, is search for a bakery, and there are many.

Traditionally most pies are stuffed with meats or a combination of vegetables and meats. Only a few, like cheese or spinach pies, are usually made with nonmeat fillings. Long favored by the masses, these vegetarian delights have for centuries been an important food in the kitchens of these lands.

On the other hand, besides cheese and spinach, more innovative cooks, like my mother, throughout the Middle East have replaced the meats with nuts and almost every kind of vegetable. In the process they have created a great number of appetizing and succulent vegetarian pies.

These can be made very small, medium size, or large enough for a one-person meal. The petit and medium versions can be served as appetizers, for snacks, as part of buffet meals, or as supplements to soups and salads. King-size and baked, they make a delectable and filling all-in-one entrée. Also, excellent for lunches and as picnic fare, they add much to the culinary world of sandwich-type foods.

Vegetarian pies can be stuffed with a never-ending variety of nonmeat ingredients and most are simple to prepare. They can be made in advance and frozen, then removed and allowed to thaw half an hour before being baked. Very delightful when served hot, they lose only a little of their mouth-watering taste if eaten cold.

The following vegetarian pies are some of the ones mother used to bake and a number which are my own creations.

Dough for the pies

1 Tbsp. sugar
1 pkg. dry yeast
1 cup lukewarm water
3 cups flour
½ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. ground ginger
4 Tbsp. olive oil

Dissolve sugar and yeast in ¼ cup of the lukewarm water, then allow to stand until yeast begins to froth.

In the meantime, combine flour, salt, and ginger in a mixing bowl, then make a well in the middle. Add the yeast, water, and oil. Knead into a dough, adding more flour or water if necessary. (Do not allow the dough to become sticky.) Shape into a ball, then brush the outside with a few drops of oil. Place on a floured tray or pan, then cover with a damp cloth. Allow to rest in a warm spot until it becomes double in size.

Note: An equal amount of frozen dough will serve equally well for all the following recipes.

Spinach pies

Spinach pies are the most commonly made pies in the Middle East. They are found on the menu of almost every feast.

1 dough recipe
1 pkg. spinach (10 oz.), thoroughly washed and finely chopped
2 medium onions, chopped
3 Tbsp. pine nuts or slivered almonds
4 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
¾ tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
½ tsp. nutmeg
1/8 tsp. cayenne

Prepare the dough for the pies, then set aside.

Make a filling by thoroughly combining all the ingredients just before rolling out the dough into rounds, then set aside.

Form the dough into 20 balls, then place them on a floured tray. Cover with a damp cloth, then allow to stand in a warm place for 30 minutes.

Roll the balls into five to six-inch rounds, then divide the filling and place two heaping tablespoons of filling on each round, stirring the filling each time. (Preferably the filling should be divided into 20 equal parts.) Fold the dough over the filling, then close by firmly pinching edges together into half moon or triangle shape.

Place the pies on well-greased baking trays, then bake in a 350° F preheated oven for 20 minutes or until pies turn golden brown. Remove from the oven, then brush with olive oil. Serve hot or cold.

Leek pies

Leeks, not much used in cooking in North America, make an excellent-succulent pie.

1 dough recipe
4 heaping cups of thoroughly washed chopped leeks
4 medium onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small hot pepper, very finely chopped
2 Tbsp. sumach (Sumach, sometimes spelled sumac, sammak, summag, and other ways, can be purchased in Middle Eastern food markets.)
2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup lemon juice
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper

Prepare the dough for the pies, then set aside.

Make a filling by thoroughly combining all remaining ingredients, then set aside.

Form the dough into 20 balls, and place them on a floured tray. Cover with a damp cloth and allow to stand in a warm place for 30 minutes, then roll the balls into five to six-inch rounds.

Follow the spinach recipe when making and baking the leek pies

Eggplant and tomato pies

1 dough recipe
1 eggplant, about 1 ½ lbs, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 tsp. salt
6 Tbsp. olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1 small hot pepper, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 large tomatoes, finely chopped
1 tsp. oregano
½ tsp. pepper
2 eggs, beaten

Prepare the dough for the pies then set aside

Sprinkle eggplant cubes with the salt, then place in a strainer over a pot. Place heavy weight atop eggplant cubes, then allow to drain for one hour.

Heat the oil in a frying pan, then sauté onions over medium heat for 10 minutes. Add the eggplant cubes, hot pepper, and garlic, then stir-fry for five minutes, adding more oil if necessary.

Make filling by stirring in the remaining ingredients, then stir-fry for a few more minutes. Allow to cool.

In the meantime, form the dough into 20 balls, then place them on a floured tray. Cover with a damp cloth and allow to stand in a warm place for 30 minutes, then roll the balls into five to six-inch rounds.

Follow the spinach recipe for making and baking eggplant and tomato pies.

Potato and tomato pies

Eaten just out of the oven, these pies are simply delicious.

1 dough recipe
4 cups shredded potatoes
2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 small hot pepper, very finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)
2 Tbsp. melted butter
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cumin
½ tsp. pepper

Prepare the dough for the pies, then set aside.

Make a filling by thoroughly combining all the remaining ingredients, then set aside.

Form the dough into 20 balls, then place them on a floured tray. Cover with a damp cloth and allow to stand in a warm place for 30 minutes, then roll the balls into 5 to 6 inch rounds.

Follow the spinach recipe for making and baking potato and tomato pies.

Pea and zucchini pies

1 dough recipe
2 ½ cups 1/4-inch cubes of unpeeled zucchini
1 ½ cups fresh or thawed frozen peas
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
4 Tbsp. ground almonds
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. oregano
½ tsp. pepper
½ tsp. paprika
¼ tsp. cayenne

Prepare the dough for the pies, then set aside.

Make a filling by thoroughly mixing all remaining ingredients, then set aside.

Form the dough into 20 balls, then place them on a flowered tray. Cover with a damp cloth and allow to stand in a warm place for 30 minutes, then roll the balls into 5 to 6 inch rounds.

Follow the spinach recipe for making and baking the pea and zucchini pies.

Mushroom pies

1 dough recipe
4 cups thinly sliced mushrooms, thoroughly washed
1 ½ cups chopped green onions
1 medium sweet green pepper, finely chopped
¼ cup finely chopped parsley
2 cloves garlic, crushed
4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. marjoram
½ tsp. pepper
¼ tsp. cayenne

Prepare the dough for the pies, then set aside.

Make a filling by thoroughly combining all remaining ingredients, then set aside.

Form the dough into 20 balls, then place them on a floured tray. Cover with a damp cloth and allow to stand in a warm place for 30 minutes, then roll the balls into five to six-inch rounds.

Follow the spinach recipe for making and baking the mushroom pies.

Corn pies

This is one of my own creations, similar to others that mother made during our farming years.
1 dough recipe
4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium sweet pepper, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small hot pepper, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
4 ½ cups fresh or thawed frozen corn
½ cup finely chopped parsley
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
½ tsp. powdered mustard
½ tsp. cumin

Prepare the dough for the pies, then set aside.

In the meantime, heat oil in a frying pan, then sauté sweet pepper, onion, hot pepper, and garlic over a medium heat for five minutes. Add the corn, then stir-fry for further five minutes.

To make the filling, stir in the remaining ingredients, then remove from the heat and allow to cool.

In the meantime, form the dough into 20 balls, then place them on a floured tray. Cover with a damp cloth and allow to stand in a warm place for 30 minutes, then roll the balls into five to six-inch rounds.

Follow the spinach recipe for making and baking the corn and pepper pies.

Chickpeas pies

Often prepared by my mother, chickpea pies are believed to have been eaten by the peasants in the Middle East since pre-Roman times.

1 dough recipe
4 Tbsp. olive oil
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
1 cup chickpeas, soaked overnight and drained

Prepare the dough for the pies, then set aside.

In the meantime, combine remaining ingredients, then set aside.

Form the dough into 20 balls, then place them on a floured tray. Cover with a damp cloth, then allow them to stand in a warm place for 30 minutes.

Roll the balls into 1/8-inch thick rounds, then place on well greased cookie tray. Stir chickpea mixture, then press firmly into the dough a handful of chickpeas on each pie.

Bake in a 350° F preheated oven for 15 minutes or until edges of pies turn light brown. Place under broiler until top browns, then serve hot.

Lentil pies

Since lentils contain an equal amount of protein as lean meat and are much more easily digestible, these pies, besides being tasty are very nourishing.

1 dough recipe
1 cup lentils, rinsed
4 cups water
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small hot pepper, very finely chopped
4 Tbsp. tomato paste
4 Tbsp. olive oil
4 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
½ tsp. cumin

Prepare the dough for the pies, then set aside.

In the meantime, place the lentils and water in a saucepan, then bring to a boil. Cover, then simmer over medium heat for 40 minutes or until the lentils are soft. Drain the lentils and allow them to cool, then mash and combine with the remaining ingredients to make a filling.

Form the dough into 20 balls, then place them on a flowered tray. Cover with a damp cloth and allow to stand in a warm place for 30 minutes, then roll the balls into 5 to 6 inch rounds.

Follow the spinach recipe for making and baking the lentil pies.

Thyme and sumach pies

In the Greater Syria area of the Middle East, this is a favored breakfast dish, eaten piping hot.

1 dough recipe
½ cup olive oil
3 Tbsp. thyme
3 Tbsp. sumach
2 Tbsp. sesame seeds
1 tsp. marjoram
¼ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. cayenne

Prepare the dough for the pies, then set aside.

In the meantime, thoroughly mix all remaining ingredients, then set aside.

Form the dough into 20 balls, then place them on a floured tray. Cover with a damp cloth, then allow to stand in a warm place for 30 minutes.

Roll the balls into 1/8-inch thick rounds, then place on well greased cookie tray. Spread the mixed ingredients evenly over top of rounds, then bake in a 350° F preheated oven for 15 minutes or until edges of pies turn light brown. Serve hot or cold.




Read More by Habeeb Salloum

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