Food section readers already know just how versatile tahini can be, and what best accompanies a dish of couscous. But when entering a well-stocked Middle Eastern market, one can easily become distracted by all the culinary treasures on the shelves — or at a loss over what to do with all there is.
Some of the Mediterranean stores around Washington offer home-cooked traditional fare; for example, Gourmet Basket in McLean, home of the best fried kibbeh in the area, also offers excellent mini pies filled with Swiss chard and sumac.
Grab a basket and search the store departments; here are a few things to look for. More can be found online at washingtonpost.com/food:
Freekeh is smoked green wheat that can be quickly and simply cooked in salted water, much like rice. Its smokiness makes freekeh an interesting side dish on its own, but it’s also great in salads (use it instead of wheat berries, for example) and soups. My accompanying recipe of freekeh with roasted tomatoes and za’atar adds two Mediterranean staples to the plate.
Bulgur is a parboiled whole wheat; in Middle Eastern markets it is sold in various grind sizes, from fine to coarse. The fine bulgur is used for salads, such as tabbouleh. Put the bulgur in a fine sieve and wash it under running water for a couple of minutes, transfer to a bowl and add lemon juice, chopped herbs, diced vegetables, olive oil and salt. Let it sit for 15 minutes so the bulgur can absorb all the vegetable juices.
Coarse bulgur needs to be cooked. A simple dish of Lebanese bulgur and lentil stew can be a great introduction to the wonders of course bulgur.
Fava beans are popular in Arab cuisines thanks to their strong, nutty flavor. They are available in Middle Eastern markets in great variety, including fresh young fava in pods during spring; frozen peeled favas; dried green and brown fava beans; dried shelled yellow fava; and canned fava beans. A good way of getting to know fava beans is by making the Egyptian breakfast staple foul medames: Wash canned fava beans, drain them and transfer to a bowl. Pound roasted cumin seed, three to fourgarlic cloves and kosher salt with a mortar and pestle and add to the favas with chopped parsley, a good drizzle of olive oil and a little lemon juice. Mix well, smashing some of the fava beans, and serve. Admittedly, the strong fava and garlic flavor could be a bit too much for breakfast, but it also works well at any other time of the day.
Dried fava beans can replace any other bean in most recipes and would lend a nutty, earthy flavor to the dish. Peeled dried fava beans break down when cooked and can be used as a base for soups.
Pomegranate molasses or syrup adds sweet and sour flavor to dishes, marinades and vinaigrettes. It can substitute for lemon in many recipes. Different brands offer different concentrations of the molasses. Look for a pomegranate molasses with the lightest color and the runniest consistency; it will offer a milder, more balanced flavor.
Date molasses or syrup can substitute for honey, be drizzled over ice cream and sweeten teas. Unlike the sweet-and-sour pomegranate molasses, date molasses is just sweet, with an earthy flavor of dates. The combination of the two, in a ratio of 2:1 in favor of the date molasses, makes a great, bold marinade for chicken and meat kebabs. Just add a little olive oil and salt, or soy sauce, as we did in the accompanying roasted chicken recipe.
During spring, most Middle Eastern markets carry fresh green almonds. These are the young almonds in their shells, before they’ve hardened, so they can be eaten whole. Dipped in salt, green almonds are a popular snack. But you can also slice them and add to green salads and gazpachos.
Late summer brings fresh yellow dates to the markets, usually still attached to the branch. Those can be sliced into salads in their unripe form or left at room temperature to ripen, then eaten without the skin. They might be the most delicious (though not aesthetically appealing) dates you’ve ever had.
Sour cherries typically are available in Iranian stores in season, but you can also find them year-round, jarred or frozen.
Crisp dried onions and frozen fried onions offer an easy shortcut. Sprinkle them onto cooked grains and vegetables. Mix a cup of dried onions with a cup of roasted nuts (such as pistachios, pine nuts or almonds) and a half-cup of dried fruit such as golden raisins, dried cherries or barberries (zereshk, a Persian dried berry). Add paprika and dried parsley, and mix with two cups of cooked rice.
Dried sliced shallots are a good staple to have on hand. Once they’re rehydrated, you can use them to flavor a labneh dip or add to soups and stews.
Za’atar is the Arabic name of a Middle Eastern herb, hyssop, that tastes like something between thyme and oregano. It is also the name of a spice mix of hyssop, sumac, sesame seeds and salt. Sprinkle it over hummus and feta; mix it with olive oil and lemon juice for a chicken breast marinade. A spice-jar size container at the grocery store can cost $8; at the Middle Eastern stores, 6 ounces of za’atar costs about $3.
Plump candied orange peel (12 ounces, $5) is available year-round. Coat the pieces in melted bittersweet chocolate for a quick dessert, chop them into cakes and fruit salads, or simply snack on them.
Fresh California walnut halves are $9 to $10 per pound. They are sweet, without the aftertaste that long-stored walnuts often have.
Middle Eastern-style yogurt is quite similar to the popular, thick Greek-style yogurt — but a four-pound container costs only $7.
Four pounds of Lebanese cracked olives, bitter and spicy in brine, cost about $10.
Twelve-ounce packages of almond powder (meal) cost $5.49 — about half the price of packaged brands in health-food stores.
Twenty-each flat stainless-steel kebab skewers with wooden handles cost $2.49 each. They’re great for grilling large pieces of meat, and because they’re wide, they hold the food better.
Pitted pressed dates (17.5 ounces, $3) can be used in baking, for filling cookies (such as rugelach) or to top bars.
Kashk or kishk, also known as whey cheese, comes in dry balls (1 pound, $6.99) or as a liquid (1 pound, $6.99) and is popular around the Middle East and the Balkans. It is made with either whey or yogurt, or a combination of both, and has a distinctive, earthy aroma and an intense, salty-sour flavor. The dry balls will keep indefinitely. Before use, they should be soaked in water and then grated or ground in a blender or food processor. Grated kashk is excellent on top of salads, veggies and omelets. Liquid kashk can top grilled or roasted vegetables and can add body and flavor to stews. Look for a brand of liquid kashk that has a smooth consistency, such as Golchin’s. My accompanying recipe for baby zucchini in kashk sauce demonstrates how easy it is to add liquid kashk to your repertoire. Just mix it with a little boiling water and pour over the vegetables.
Mastic gum or tears of Chios (.6 ounce, $8) is a tree resin that has a light pine-nut aroma. It is used in the Middle East, Turkey and Greece to thicken desserts and to make mastika liquor. Mastic is expensive, but you need very little of it. Add ¼ teaspoon of ground mastic to a low-pectin fruit jam during the last five minutes of cooking. Or add half a teaspoon of mastic dissolved in ¼ cup of hot water to an ice cream recipe to make it stretchy and gummy, with a mild scent of pine nuts.
Babylon Market, 1055 W. Broad St., Falls Church, Va. 703-533-0004.
The Gourmet Basket, Lebanese and Middle Eastern carryout, catering and market, 6829 Tennyson Dr., McLean. 703-848-2456. the-gourmet-basket.com.
Halalco Supermarket, 155 Hillwood Ave., Falls Church, Va. 703-532-3202. halalco.com.
Khartoum Grocery & Halal Meat, 2116 18th St NW. 202-265-7100.
Lebanese Taverna Market, Lebanese carryout, catering and market, 4400 Old Dominion Dr., Arlington, Va. 703-276-8681. www.lebanesetaverna.com.
Mediterranean Bakery and Cafe, cafe, bakery and market, 352 S. Pickett St., Alexandria. 703-751-0030.
Mediterranean Gourmet Market, 6122 Franconia Rd., Alexandria, Va. 703-971-7799.
The Mediterranean Way, 1717 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-560-5715. www.themediway.com.
Shemali’s, Lebanese carryout, catering and market, 3301 New Mexico Ave. NW. 202-686-7070.
Shiraz Market, 8486-G Tyco Rd., Vienna, Va. 703-992-9566. shirazsupermarket.com.
Thomas’s Market, 2650 W. University Blvd., Wheaton, Md. 301-942-0839.
Yas Bakery & Supermarket, Persian bakery and market, 137 Church St NW, Vienna, Va. 703-242-4050. www.yasbakery.com.
Yekta Market, Persian and Middle Eastern market, 1488 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Md. 301-984-0005. yekta.com.
Vered Guttman writes the Modern Manna food column for Haaretz.com and is owner of Cardamom & Mint Catering in Chevy Chase, Md.