I’m willing to admit that I may not be the most fun dining companion. When I’m in a restaurant, I can’t help but survey the situation in an attempt to determine what kind of experience I’m going to have: Is the staff standing around, seemingly bored and staring into their phones? Are the servers quietly, yet, audibly enough bitching to each other about the kitchen? Do things appear clean and organized? Are the bathrooms clean? How many fake plants make up the decor and how much dust are they bespeckled with? Really, what I’m looking for, is do the people here care. Because if someone cares about what they’re doing, regardless of what it is, chances are they will do it well. If they’re polishing glassware and come across a cracked or chipped glass they will take it out of circulation—not notice it and go “Meh, fuck it. Not my problem!”—or, possibly worse, not notice it at all. Someone who cares thinks about how they would feel getting that glass. Someone who cares thinks. I want to live and dine in a world where people care. Unfortunately though, that just ain’t always the case, and, well, once I’ve seen something, it can’t be unseen. I’m just not great at letting stuff go, relaxing, being carefree, and having a good time. “Loosen up!” ,“Relax!”, “What’s the worst that could happen?” people say with a smile—rhetorically, jokingly, proddingly, mockingly. Well, my default setting is to be on high alert. I am on the lookout for things that are going to cause me harm and I come equipped with a list of fears that some, possessed of spirits more jovial than mine, might consider to be irrational. A list—which, if ever unfurled—would surely stretch from sea to shining sea. Welcome to the wacky world of life with an anxiety disorder and an active imagination!
Maybe this is why we don’t dine out very often, and often when we do I wish we’d just stayed home. I can’t handle the crushing disappointment. I get tired of feeling like I’m ruining the experience for everyone else, or tired of acting like everything’s fine just to placate those I’m with. Don’t ya see? I’m just not the most fun dining companion.
On one occasion, out to lunch for sushi, I was willing to pretend the chipped dishes and glassware we were given didn’t bother me—which, in reality, is a huge deal-breaker for me and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be eating or drinking anything from that point on—but I was trying not to make a big deal out of it by projecting my freakishness onto Ryan, for his sake, because he was so hungry. We hadn’t eaten all day and sushi was his choice. I looked around and saw tables of other people laughing, smiling, eating, drinking...they all seemed okay. This particular state of denial I was trying to live in lasted approximately three minutes, until the moment I saw the chef sneeze into his hand—his gloved hand—while scrolling through his cell phone with the other gloved hand, as he stood, presumably waiting for an order—presumably waiting for our order—just behind the sushi bar. In plain sight of everyone—all the people still laughing, smiling, eating, and drinking. And it wasn’t just a light a-choo sneeze either. Had no one else seen this? I sat disturbed as Ryan proceeded to order and eat his lunch. He had seen the look on my face. “Do I want to know?” he asked.
On another occasion I had to excuse myself to the car while Ryan, once again, ate his lunch alone after our waiter went directly from mopping the floor with an off mix of noxious chemicals that I’m pretty sure was just degreaser to grab our drinks—sparing us the time it would take to wash his hands along the way—and holding the glasses by the rim, ya know, with his hands that had just been holding the mop now firmly gripping where our mouths were supposed to go. Well, not my mouth! “I’ll be in the car.” I managed to choke out with the breath I’d been holding in an attempt to avoid the poison gas. Was I the only one getting woozy? I spent my wait in the car wondering: Maybe I am crazy and I just don’t know it? Would I even know it if I was crazy? Like, really crazy? Surely, my therapist would have told me by now, no? One of these days I’ll be carried away on a stretcher, alternating between mumbling to myself and yelling at everyone the unsightly truths I’ve seen. Basically just picture the end of Soylent Green.
I have the same handful of restaurants I like to go to where I know what to expect, I know what I like, and I know what I’ll get. That’s comforting to me. Ryan, on the other hand, is way more adventurous at trying new places, and if it weren’t for him, I don’t know that I would, of my own volition, venture far enough out of my comfort zone to try them. Sometimes it ends up being like the aforementioned experiences, and sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised and left with the albeit temporary sensation of euphoria that comes from the reward side of risk-taking. Alas, the latter scenario happens much less frequently than I, or Ryan, would like.
So when we were out running errands and were suddenly overwhelmed with hunger and the realization that we hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch, the conversation of where to eat came up. I don’t know if it’s just us, but deciding where to eat always feels to me like one of those couple situations where you have to decide which battle you’re going to pick. Is choice of restaurant for today’s lunch really the hill I want to die on? The lawn does need mowing, after all.
Ryan suggested a new Moroccan restaurant that had just opened. I agreed. We walked through the parking lot from the car to the restaurant in silence. Ryan probably wondering if he’d be eating alone, me wondering if I’d soon be back in the car, rocking back and forth and telling myself “I’m not crazy, I’m not crazy, I’m not crazy.” As we opened the door I felt an immediate urge to turn tail and flee: The restaurant was completely empty. In the middle of lunch service. On a Saturday. But it was too late. We’d been spotted, greeted warmly, and shown to a table. The space was large, and having it all to ourselves made it seem even more so. I was seated facing the door and could see the car in the parking lot should I need to make a break for it. Ryan was looking over the menu and offering suggestions of what he thought sounded good. Suggestions that were, I could tell, selected with me and my trepidation in mind, and being submitted for my approval, bless his heart. This is where the fattoush comes in, in case you were wondering where, in this meandering narrative, I was ever going to talk about the recipe I’m sharing in this post.
Among the smattering of dishes we ordered that day was fattoush, and it was, I decided, one of those things I could eat for several meals in a row throughout the week and never get tired of it. A crunchy mix of fresh vegetables, sweet, juicy tomatoes, and toasted pita bread dressed with a heavy hand of chopped parsley, garlic, olive oil, along with a bright strike of acidity from lemon and vinegar. It was one of those things that not only tastes good and is satisfying, but you feel good about eating it. And lo! It has bread as an ingredient in it! That’s right, part of the salad is pita bread. I’m sold right there on that principle alone. I resolved that this was a dish I would need to recreate at home.
While the components of any given fattoush can vary quite a bit from country to country throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean, pita bread is one of the common denominators that they all share. In keeping with a waste-not-want-not attitude, stale bread is given new life in fattoush, as it is in other dishes you may be familiar with like panzanella, gazpacho, and pain perdu. I always have a package of store-bought pitas kicking around in my freezer that I toast up when I make this, but if you have pita chips lurking around in your pantry you could use them instead. Because I like to stretch many meals out of this salad, I like to keep the toasted pitas and tomatoes separate, and the chopped vegetable mix undressed so that on day two or three it’s still as lively as on day one. This salad can be a meal on its own, or you could serve it alongside a protein of your choice, like chicken, steak, or fish. As for the preparation of the vegetables, I have two words for you: production cuts. These are, as my culinary fundamentals chef instructor would say, all about utilization. Meaning, while of course I want my knife work to look good, I also don’t want to spend an exorbitant amount of time to do so, nor do I want to excessively trim or discard anything that isn’t perfectly square: I want things to look nice but I want to prepare it quickly and with little food waste. So, with that in mind, there’s no need to get your ruler out today.
I like to set all the fattoush fixings out on a table accompanied by bowls of olives, pepperoncini, and feta—because, if there’s anything I like better than a bread salad, it’s a bread salad generously topped with cheese. Or at least that’s how I get down. Do make a trip to the bulk section of your health food store to pickup some za’atar and sumac. Za’atar is a blend of herbs and spices, including but not limited to a type of wild thyme (also called zaatar or hyssop), sesame seeds, and sumac, though depending on the mix you procure the exact ingredients and their proportions will vary. This is why I also like to have additional sumac, for sprinkling on top of the salad. And, also, just to sniff. Yeah, I’m weird, okay, whatever, but, you should try it. The scent is something so familiar to me yet I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s somewhere between lingonberry, cranberry, lemon, and something else that keeps me guessing. It’s a great little dried reddish berry that you can purchase already ground, if you like, and it’s not the same as poison sumac so don’t worry, sprinkle and sniff away! Well, now that I’ve made this awkward, here’s the recipe:
The recipe makes enough for two people to have several meals from, and in all likelihood would serve six to eight people, or even a small crowd at a picnic or potluck. Keep the fattoush mix, tomatoes, pita bits, and vinaigrette separate until about five minutes before serving to avoid losing structural integrity (i.e. things getting soggy).
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Well hello! I'm Kat, and
I'm always either cooking or thinking about what I want to cook next. For me, food is always about so much more than just my next meal. This is a place for sharing stories and recipes from a life lived through the lens of food...