I’ve been excited to publish this post for some time now.  First because it honors one of my favorite things to eat: za’atar and because it is the recipe I chose to use to launch a new series of cooking videos that I am working on with my childhood friend, Tanya Marar. I can safely say that making this video and the one to follow (hint: rice pudding) has been the most fun I’ve had in a very long time. I think video is the perfect medium to showcase a recipe and I can’t wait for you to watch this short video about making za’atar and hear your thoughts! It’s linked just a few lines down.

But wait, first, let’s talk za’atar…

Za’atar a blend of thyme, sumac and sesame has been in my life for so long, I can’t even remember the first time I tried it. Whether it was sandwiched between layers of pita bread as a school snack, baked into mana’eesh, a flat bread that is topped with za’atar and tons of piping hot olive oil, or simply with labaneh and fresh cut tomatoes and cucumbers, za’atar has been a very big part of my life. I remember how my mother used to insist on feeding me za’atar for breakfast before exams as a child. Her mother did that to her too and probably every Middle Eastern mother. “Apparently” za’atar opens up the mind and makes one think clearer. I’m not sure if it’s the tangy kick but I think it works.

In Jordan we are known for making very good za’atar. The ingredients that go into it grow in the wild and are heavily concentrated with flavor. The variety of thyme that we use to make za’atar is called Wooly Thyme (picture below). The leaves are flat and large with a velvety surface. The leaves pack a punch which give the za’atar blend a sharp spiciness that is balanced out by the sour tang of sumac and the not-so-subtle sweet nuttiness of the sesame. When mixed together the ingredients manage to combine the sweet, sour, salty and spicy, the hallmark of any good za’atar.


Making Za’atar

Za’atar & Zeit from Leen Al Zaben on Vimeo.



4 cups Crushed thyme* or za’atar as we call it in the Middle East

1 ½ tsp Salt

2 Tbsp Extra virgin olive oil

1 – 1½ cups Untoasted sesame (depending on how much you love sesame!)

4 Tbsp Sumac



*To dry the thyme/ za’atar:

If you do not have a drier/ dehydrator this is the best way to dry thyme:

First, wash the fresh thyme very well. Ensuring that all mud and dust has been cleaned off the leaves.

Next, pat the leaves dry and pick them off the stems.

Lay the leaves in a thin layer on some tea towels and allow to dry for several days.

Once the leaves shrivel up and crinkle they are ready to be transformed into delicious za’atar.

To make the za’atar mix:

In a food processor, place the thyme leaves and pulse until they turn into a light green power.

Place the crushed thyme into a bowl and add the salt. Mix well.

Next, slowly add the olive oil and rub into the thyme, making sure it blends with the entire mixture. This step allows the salt and thyme to marry while the olive oil  deepens the flavor of the thyme and gives it its distinctive color.

Next, toast the sesame until golden brown and add to the za’atar mix while it is still hot. This allows the nutty oil extracts of the sesame to bind with the za’atar. Finally, add the sumac and mix well.

Place the za’atar in airtight jars. If you plan to make a lot of za’atar you can refrigerate the jars until ready to use.

Za’atar can usually last for several months, although it always runs out a few weeks later in my household and a new batch is made.

Credits (in alphabetical order):

Leen Al Zaben: Producer, Stylist & Recipe Developmet

Omar Sawalha: Editor

Sarah Dajani: Co-producer

Tanya Marar: Producer & Director of Photography

Music: Il Hilwa Di by Magic Carpet (please note that I do not own any rights to the music used in the video).



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Garden Raspberries

The Dordogne Valley & My Comeback

On October 28, 2012, in Travel, by Leen

I know it’s been too long since I’ve last blogged and I’m both ashamed and sorry. I’ve also been told off by several people, so I hope this one makes up for my absence.

The last few months have been extremely busy and believe it or not, I spent all my time writing (not for my blog, obviously!) To escape the stress, I sought refuge in the kitchen, but never long enough to come up with a post.

So now that I’ve submitted all the work for my master’s program, I can officially get back to blogging and most importantly to food.

Last January, I impatiently waited for Aran Goyoaga from Cannelle et Vanille to post the dates for her 2012 workshop. I was lucky enough to get a spot in one of the most coveted food styling and photography workshops out there.

So, as a graduation gift to myself, I joined Aran and nine other wonderful women in the Dordogne Valley in Southwest France for an unforgettable week that consisted of cooking, styling, photographing and eating.

The workshop took place in a tiny village called Beynac, which in my opinion is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. Famous for its foie gras, or the place where the movie Chocolat was filmed, Beynac is full of cobblestone pathways, medieval castles and cute restaurants with food that’s just perfect for a getaway in the French countryside.

Every day of this wonderfully planned trip was filled with long walks in the lush French countryside, *very* long visits to the market, immaculately styled (and delicious) picnics by the Dordogne River, trips to a walnut grove, ice cream tastings (I tried poppy, daffodil and violet and they were creamy, flowery and delicious), baking sessions and unforgettable meals.

In a nutshell, I spent a week with wonderful company, beautiful surroundings and great food that connected me with people who have become treasured friends.



Ah, salads. They bring me great joy. I can’t imagine a single day going by without munching on something crisp and lemony. I’ve decided to share some of my favorite salads, the crave-worthy ones, that are twists on old favorites.


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It has been a frozen February. The air has a biting iciness to it and it has sent me straight into the arms of my kitchen for some warmth and goodness. It’s been six months since my last post—I have been in lack of inspiration. Probably because I’m on a complex gluten-free, dairy-free and egg-free diet which has limited me tremendously, but with time I have grown accustomed to it, and I have found my ways to culinary satisfaction.

Vanilla strawberry cake has been a long-time favorite of mine. It has the ability to transport me back to my childhood, specifically to the mornings following my birthday when all I had for breakfast was strawberry cake. I remember savoring every slice as I watched the cake diminish in size at the back of the refrigerator. (more…)

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072111Beit Sitti 22

To Grandmother’s House We Go

On July 21, 2011, in Uncategorized, by Leen

In every culture, grandmothers are revered, respected and loved. And in most cultures they are the gatekeepers to a world of good food and secret family recipes.

It was in my grandmother’s kitchen that I started my search for good food. Among the clatter of her ancient pots and pans I was first introduced to the crunch of the pickle, the aroma of white pillowy rice and the taste of extra virgin olive oil.

I don’t know why many people haven’t spent their idle childhood hours toasting near an oven or whisking egg whites to soft peaks, but I do know that it’s never too late for anything.

It was a stroke of genius that brought Beit Sitti (which literally translates to “my grandmother’s house”) to life. Beit Sitti, a little culinary gem nestled in a hill overlooking the heart of Amman is a place where everyone is invited into the proverbial grandmother’s kitchen.  People can learn how to cook traditional Middle Eastern fare from recipes that have been passed down for generations.

Last Friday I spent my morning witnessing the preparation of a feast of Arabic brunch delicacies. Surrounded by freshly made hummus and foul, crispy hot falafel and freshly baked manaeesh, I was in brunch heaven.  This brunch  happens every Friday under canopies of ancient fig and mulberry trees. If cooking isn’t your thing then you can sip ice-cold lemonade and savor the view of old houses and pine trees lining the adjacent hills while you wait for your food.

Beit Sitti hosts daily cooking classes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Guests can choose to cook a full four-course meal from a list of traditional Arabic dishes.

To whet your appetite and sharpen your cooking skills visit: http://www.beitsittijo.com

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Apricot Jam Recipe

Apricot Jamming

On July 10, 2011, in Uncategorized, by Leen

Most of my memories of summer are linked to things I ate and how I ate them. Under my grandmother’s apricot tree, I would wait as she cooked a fresh batch of jam from the summer’s ripest apricots.

Apricot Jam Recipe

While waiting, she gave me the most important job of all: extracting the kernels out of the apricot stones. I would hammer carefully, breaking open the stones to reveal the bittersweet white kernel hidden within. I loved to eat the kernels, they had the most delicate texture: the soft-crunch. Of course the kernels were meant for the jam, but I always managed so slip some out of the pile.

Apricot Jam Recipe

I would eat the jam piping hot, straight out of the pot. Smelling like fruity caramel, I would slather it onto some toast with a tiny slab of butter. Apricot jam is my breakfast comfort food. It reminds me of childhood, but mostly of how the simplest things can be wonderful. Hot jam on toast, nothing beats that.

For this post, I collaborated with my friend Ali Saadi who gave me invaluable tips on photography and lighting and who let me use his treasure trove of photography equipment.

Apricot Jam Recipe


For this recipe, make sure you use the ripest apricots, they’re the one’s that are almost falling apart. They are sweeter and their ripeness gives the jam the texture and warm flavor it needs. Here’s my mother’s recipe. Enjoy!

Prep. Time 1 hour (excluding marination time)

Makes 5 medium jars


(for this recipe, make sure you do not throw away the apricot stones)

16 cups ripe halved apricots with stones removed (about 800g – 1 kg)

10 cups granulated sugar

1 lemon, squeezed

kernels from apricot stones

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil


  1. In a bowl, place the halved apricots and pour the sugar on them.
  2. Lightly toss to cover all the apricots and set aside. Leave the apricots overnight to marinate in the sugar and release their juices.
  3. Using a mallet or a hammer, break open the apricot stones and extract the white kernels. Set them aside.
  4. Place the apricot and sugar mixture in a pot and cook over medium heat until it comes to a boil.
  5. Stir in the lemon juice and apricot kernels.
  6. Reduce heat and simmer while stirring for 20 – 30 minutes, or until the apricots melt and the jam has a thick, sticky consistency.
  7. Cool the jam for 1 hour, then pour into jars.
  8. Pour 1 tablespoon of olive oil on the surface of the jam in each jar and leave uncovered until completely cool.
  9. Seal the jars and set aside unrefrigerated.

*Once you open the jar refrigerate after use.

Apricot Jam Recipe

Apricot Jam Recipe

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041411Dubai Crabs 1

To Market, To Market…

On April 14, 2011, in Dubai, Fish, Market, Middle East, Souk, Travel, by Leen

Most people associate Dubai with towering skyscrapers, huge malls and exotic fish held captive in large aquariums. When I think of Dubai I think of fresh fish, you know the edible kind? This March, I found myself back in the place where I spent a few years of my childhood.

I was ecstatic to be back in the place I once called home. I spent my days soaking up the sun on the beach, zipping along the Sheikh Zayed Highway and visiting the biggest and best Dubai had to offer. Sadly, the shiny new Dubai felt alien to me.

Awash with nostalgia I decided to visit the places that I associated with the Dubai I knew. I drove down the Beach Road and visited my old neighborhood. I walked along the beach and watched as young boys standing on the rocks of the Dubai Marine cast their fishing lines into the sea. I shared their anticipation as they reeled their lines in waiting to size up their catch.  With the smell of the salt and humidity I started to feel more at home.

My next stop was the Fish Market. I must admit that I did not visit it regularly when I was living in Dubai, but for some reason, the memory of the Fish Market, which sells fresh fruit, vegetables and just caught fish, was etched in my memory. And so, feeling like I was back on home turf I ventured past the pristine buildings and manicured lawns towards Al-Shindagha to visit Dubai’s Fish Market.

As soon as I stepped into the market my senses were assaulted with the smells, sounds and colors. With every fruit on display (exotic and otherwise), beautiful vegetables and the colorful fish of the Arabian Gulf, the market was a feast for the eyes.

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The Flavors of Jordan

On March 30, 2011, in Amman, Family favorite, Jordan, by Leen

I always compared Jordan to neighboring countries and took pride in the unity that Jordanians have; today, however, I find that that unity is wavering. I used to think that our identity was a difficult one to define, but after exploring Jordan and its cuisine I was able to truly understand what it means to be Jordanian. And so, at a time like this, I wonder why people have chosen to forget what it is that makes Jordan our home.

لطالما قارنت الأردن بالبلاد العربية المجاورة و كنت أفتخر بوحدة الأردنيين، اليوم أجد أن هذه الوحدة تتزعزع. ولطالما أعتقدت أن هويتنا يصعب تحديدها، ولكن بعد إستكشاف الأردن و المطبخ الأردني بدأت أفهم ماهية أن تكون أردنياً. و في مثل هذا الوقت أتعجب كيف يمكن أن ينسى الناس ما الذي يجعل الأردن بيتنا

My culinary journey started in Amman and extended all over Jordan. On this journey I ate, cooked and most importantly, I learned. I met men and women of different heritage, religion, background and race and despite their differences I came to realize that they all shared a love for one single thing: food.

إن رحلتي في فن الطبخ خطت خطواتها الأولى في عمان ثم إمتدت إلى كل أنحاء الأردن. في هذه الرحلة تذوقت، شاركت بالطبخ و الأهم من كل ذلك تعلمت. و قد قابلت الرجال و النساء من كل أطياف المجتمع و خلفياته سواء كانت عرقية، دينية أو أوصولية، و بالرغم من كل هذه الإختلافات لمست حبهم المشترك للطعام

Every teta, mama or person I visited on my journey shared their version and interpretation of what Jordanian cuisine is. Historically, the Jordanian pantry was very limited, with scarcely a few items lining its shelves: rice or wheat, dairy products, meat and the few vegetables that grew in the wild. That got me thinking about the modern Jordanian kitchen and what it has become.

كل جدة ووالدة قابلت شاركتني بحكايتها الخاصة عن المطبخ الأردني.  تاريخياً النملية الأردنية كانت محدودة ببضع مأكولات تملأ رفوفها، مما دعاني بالتفكير بالمطبخ الأردني المعاصر و كيف تتطور

I realized that all the dishes that define the flavor of Jordan have been brought into the country by people who have made this place their home. So, that was when I truly came to understand the culinary landscape of Jordan and thus, its identity. All of a sudden, dishes started to make sense; the originally Egyptian Mloukiheh has become Jordanian, the Syrian kubbeh found its home in Amman, we find ourselves unable to choose between Msakhan and Mansaf, the taste of the Circassian Shibs-o-basta lingers on our palate when we are homesick, and the Iraqis and Lebanese are still trying to determine who brought Waraq Dawali to Jordan first.

فإستنتجت أن كل الوصفات و الأطباق التي تحدد نكهة الأردن جاءت إلى هذا البلد مع العائلات التى إختارت الأردن موطناً  لها. و هكذا إستطعت أن أفهم المطبخ الأردني و هوييته. و فجأة إنحل اللغز، فالملوخية المصرية أصبحت أردنية و الكبة السورية لاقت منزلها في عمان و وجدنا أنفسنا نحتار بين المسخن و المنسف و أصبح طعم الشبس وباسطا عالقاً في خيالنا عندما نشعر بالحنين للوطن، و أما العراقيين و اللبنانيين ما زالوا يختلفوا عن من أحضر ورق الدوالي إلى الأردن أولاً

And that was when it finally hit me. It was simple. These colorful dishes made their way into Jordan and created our culinary identity. They were welcomed with open arms, and they have now become a part of each and every family.  They are dishes that we love and that we cannot, not even for a moment, imagine our lives without. What I learned is that the Jordanian identity does not really differ from its kitchen. Let us not forget who we are, and what Jordan has come to represent. For without all the people who have made Jordan their home, Jordan wouldn’t really be.

و أخيراً فهمت و بكل بساطة أن كل هذه الأطباق بأنواعها و ألوانها و نكهاتها المختلفة وجدت طريقها إلى الأردن و جمعتنا. فلقد تم إستقبالها بشهية مفتوحة و حب لتذوق الطعام و أصبحت كل عائلة تستمتع بتناولها و أخذ كل طبق منها حيزاً في عقلنا و قلبنا. هي أطباق لا نمكن أن نستغني عنها ولو لثانية. و تعلمت أن الهوية الأردنية لا تختلف عن مطبخها. دعونا لا ننسى من نحن و من يمثل الأردن، فالأردن لن يكون كما هو حقيقةً بدون هؤلأ الذين إختاروه، أحبوه و عاشوا فيه

Recipes to come…


I was having lunch with some friends yesterday when the subject of lentils came up. Some thought they were a waste of calories, and others thought they were so healthy that they would go for lentils whenever they got the chance. I, for one, love lentils, but to be fair I don’t love just any lentils, I love red lentils that make lentil soup.

“It’s probably the most widely ordered soup,” said one of my friends, and I would probably agree. When it’s cold, and when I’m feeling a bit homesick nothing can remedy the situation better than a bowl of hot lentil soup.

I don’t know what it is about the soup that makes me feel better; drinking does in fact comfort me, but I think the process of making it that is the most powerful.

Cooking is my way of unwinding and getting centered, but come to think of it, it’s not that either. I think it’s the fact that so many healthy local ingredients go into lentil soup that I know for certain that I would make my mother proud. It’s also the sort of soup that anyone can make.

You can make a thick soup and enjoy it with slices of bread and butter and make a meal out of it. Or, you can thin it down and pair it with a salad and a grilled piece of meat. Whatever you do, lentil soup is a hearty, heartwarming dish that is packed with protein and vitamins.


Time (1 hour)

Serves 5


  • 2 cups red lentils
  • 2 tbsp corn oil
  • 5 cups boiled water
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 leek, trimmed and finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, peeled and cubed
  • 1 zucchini, cubed
  • 1 potato, peeled and cubed
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pinch turmeric
  • 1 loaf Arabic/ pita bread cut into small squares (2cmx2cm)
  • ½ cup fresh chopped parsley
  • 1 lemon, cut into four wedges


  • 1 pot
  • 1 wooden spoon
  • 1 baking sheet
  • Hand blender


  1. Preheat oven to 160C.
  2. Wash and soak the lentils in cold water rinsing out any starch in them. Once rinsed, place the lentils in the sieve and let drain.
  3. In a large pot heat the oil and add the chopped onions and leeks. Sautee until soft.
  4. Add the rest of the vegetables and sauté for a few minutes.
  5. Add the lentils and the boiling water
  6. Finally, stir in the cumin, salt, pepper and turmeric and cover.
  7. Simmer on low heat for about 30-45 minutes or until the carrots and potatoes are tender and ready.
  8. Place the bread squares on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until golden and crispy. About 6-10 minutes. You can also use the grilling option instead.
  9. Remove soup from heat and puree it with a hand blender until smooth and creamy. If you feel that the soup is too thick add some boiling water until the soup reaches the desired consistency.
  10. Garnish the soup with some fresh parsley and serve with some toasted bread and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
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Ever since I read the story of the farmer who had a giant turnip growing in his vegetable patch, I knew that turnips were special. As a child, I didn’t really understand why.  With time, I grew, and my relationship with food changed. All of a sudden there was room for turnips and I finally understood them.

With the hue of a beetroot and the tang of a radish the turnip has burrowed its way into the Middle Eastern kitchen. We welcomed it with open arms— stuffing it, pickling it and even giving it a star role in soups and stews. My mother went a step further and dedicated an entire section of her vegetable patch to turnips. As a result we found new ways to eat turnips; one innovation was a crisp salad my mother made from turnip leaves (turnip greens) topped with turnip root shavings. She dressed it simply with fresh lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of fleur de sel, in reverse order of course. The salad was satisfying in a way that shamed all other green salads.

But I digress. This post is dedicated to pickled turnips and other winter roots. Along with beets, turnips are pickled as part of our winter repertoire of savories and preserves. This recipe is a classic that is rooted in my grandmother’s kitchen notebook and one which we have continued to use, time and time again, in spite of our innovations.



  • 3 beets, boiled
  • 2 beets, fresh
  • 1kg turnips
  • ¼ head cauliflower (optional)
  • 4-5 garlic cloves
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary (optional)
  • 1 green chili (optional)
  • 5 tbsp coarse salt
  • 2 liters cold mineral water


  • Knife
  • Chopping board
  • Sieve
  • 2 large bowls
  • 1 medium sized pickling jar, sterilized


  1. Boil the 3 beets until well-cooked (about 1 hour)
  2. Trim the turnips of any greenery or remains of the roots. If certain areas of the turnips are bruised, peel away the skin. Make sure to keep as much of the skin as you can on the turnips, this gives them a crunch even after they are pickled
  3. Slice the turnips into semi-circles (about ½ cm thick), or into large cubes (approx 1cm by 1 cm)
  4. Place the turnips in the sieve and sprinkle 2 tbsp of salt on them. Toss them to make sure the salt has coated all of them.
  5. Place the sieve with the turnips on top of a bowl, and let the water drain. I usually add a plate to weigh the turnips down and to allow the water to drain properly. Let stand for about 2 – 3 hours
  6. Peel the beets and cut them in the same way you cut the turnips
  7. Slice the garlic cloves in half (lengthwise)
  8. Peel the cooked beets and cut them (see steps 3 and 4)
  9. In a bowl pour 2 liters of water and add the salt, stirring with a spoon until all the salt has dissolved
  10. Once the turnips have drained their water, discard it
  11. Place the turnips, beets, cauliflower, garlic, rosemary and chili in the jar, layering them as you go along
  12. Fill the jar with the salted water making sure it just covers the vegetables
  13. Pour 2 tbsp of vinegar concentrate (acetic acid) on top and seal the jar for two weeks

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