Last Spring I took a League of Kitchens class with a Lebanese home cook, Jeanette, in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. When we entered her tidy apartment, the table was set with an array of beautiful dishes, which we nibbled on as Jeanette told us a little about herself, and what she was going to teach us to cook. Jeanette grew up in the Lebanese city of Zahle and moved to the U.S. in 2006. She misses her hometown, but not the perpetual threat of war. She clearly found comfort in preparing the foods of her homeland. And what foods! Smooth hummus, creamy labneh, tabbouleh, which was a revelation: a finely shaved parsley salad that was so light and delicate it was like eating herby air, maldoun, a savory eggplant and vegetable casserole with ground beef, rice with vermicelli, aromatic and ladylike, and butter cookies flavored with nutmeg, dates, and sesame seeds. But I could hardly focus during that preliminary talk because I was fixated on a bowl of ful, fava beans served room temperature with olive oil and lemon juice and flavored with grated garlic, chopped onions, and parsley. It was so simple and so utterly delicious that while I want to make all the terrific dishes I learned from her, Jeanette’s ful was the dish I really came home with.
Indeed, I have made versions of it at least ten times since. Here’s what I’ve learned.
All it takes to make ful is to cook the beans until they are almost tender. If cooking with canned beans, place both the beans and water in the pot and bring to a gentle boil. If using dried, then first cook rehydrated beans in water until they are tender, and leave enough cooking water in the pot for the beans to stay moist. For 2 cups of cooked beans add ¼ cup chopped onion and ¼ cup tomato. Continue cooking until everything is soft. You can add cumin if you like, salt, and lots of black pepper.
Pour the beans into a serving bowl and dress with lemon juice to taste, a nice big dribble of olive oil, and the various toppings. The ful sits around at room temperature and makes a wonderful lunch, or side dish, though Lebanese folks prefer to eat it for breakfast.
A day of cooking with Jeanette was joyful in every way, and at the end of our session, we ate these wonderful foods with her charming and boisterous family, and talked about Middle Eastern politics and Lebanese culture.
The League of Kitchens offers classes in a variety of cuisines by fabulous home cooks in their NYC apartments. If you want to learn Korean cooking, or Afghany cooking, this is the way to do it. Because not only did I learn a technique I can play with forever, but I came away with a little deeper understanding of Lebanese culture and a greater appreciation of its charming people. Isn’t it always the case? Food is the doorway by which we can know a place…even Zahle by way of Brooklyn.