Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Billy Goat Food Trail (1)

Figs Fine Foods
4828 MacArthur Blvd, NW

Dish To Die For: labneh and za'atar sandwich on toasted Barbari bread

We found Figs by chance. It’s easy to overlook, tucked away on the sunken level of a small strip of storefronts in the Palisades. But, for reasons that will become obvious as you read this series of posts, we have come to see this section of MacArthur Boulevard as base camp for hiking the Billy Goat Trail, and have gotten to know what the neighborhood has to offer, which is quite a bit.

Figs presents itself as a Lebanese restaurant/deli, but in fact its Middle Eastern scope is  wider than that. Sandwiches here are made with Barbari, an Iranian style loaf that is sturdier than Levantine pita bread, and densely covered with toasted sesame seeds. Still, chef/owner Reem Azoury's focus is on foods that reflect the everyday choices of the people of the Levant, getting more to the core of daily life than the usual roster of Lebanese foods offered in DC restaurants. For my picnic sandwich, I chose labneh, a tangy yogurt cheese, and za’atar, dried wild thyme soaked in fresh pressed olive oil.

When I was doing my fieldwork in a Palestinian village, I ate both of these foods on an almost daily basis – mostly for breakfast, but also for lunch, dinner, or whenever I needed a snack. The family I lived with would make labneh from scratch, adding a little yogurt starter and salt to milk and bringing it slowly to a boil. Waiting for the mixture to thicken took patience, but eventually a mass thick enough to slip into a muslin bag had formed. The bag would be tied at the top, looped over the kitchen spigot, and left overnight for the whey to drain into the sink below. By morning, a cheese awaited. It was gently placed into a shallow bowl, and the middle hollowed out with the back of a spoon. This depression created a small well into which olive oil would be poured, ready for dipping.

On my sandwich, though, the olive oil from the za’atar performed this function. Slices of cucumber and tomato rounded out the family of flavors. Eating this on Section A of the Billy Goat Trail, I marveled at how well the nutty crunch of the toasted sesame seeds complemented the creamy tang of the cheese, the bread’s alto to the labneh’s soprano. They were the leading characters in this aria, with the other ingredients working as a supporting cast. With each bite, I applauded madly. Brava, Maestra Reem.

Making labneh at home

Making labneh from scratch never really worked for me at home – despite the instruction I was given and the opportunity to watch the process first hand. (Fadwa, if you are reading this, please feel free to give us some tips!) Fortunately, my Middle Eastern friends back in the States let me in on a secret: it’s not really necessary to start from Step 1. You can simply buy some good, plain yogurt – Greek style, for example – add salt, and let it drain overnight. If you would like to simulate the experience of draining the whey from a muslin bag, this recipe has step by step pictures that nicely illustrate how to do it. But equally, you could line a colander or even a coffee cone with cheesecloth, leave the yogurt in it overnight and the result will be satisfactory. For storage, form the labneh into ping pong sized balls (or smaller) and store in a jar of olive oil.

Hiking the Billy Goat Trail A

Section A of the Billy Goat Trail is the most strenuous of the three sections, and involves rock scrambling for a significant part of it. Unless you are intent on keeping up a brisk rate, allow three and half hours for the roundtrip, including time for admiring the magnificent vistas and picnicking on the cliffs or on the small beach. The parking lot for the trail is across the road from the Old Angler's Inn on MacArthur Boulevard, about a 10 minute drive from Figs. Cross the bridge at the bottom of the hill, hang a right and walk along the towpath until you reach the sign for the Billy Goat Trail turnoff. Get a good work out for 1.7 miles going out, then relax returning along the flat towpath. For where to go post-hike, see my next post.

Photo credits: Chris Svoboda

For the Billy Goat Food Trail (2) click here
For the Billy Goat Food Trail (3) click here
For the Billy Goat Food Trail (4) click here

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