Club Med

IN THE SEVEN HOURS before I arrive at the Hallak Middle East Market in North Providence for an informal cooking lesson one Thursday afternoon, Georgette Hallak has rolled, stuffed, crimped, packaged and frozen three hundred “hand pies.”

A unique shape identifies each filling: half-moons are cheese; open-topped squares, vegetable; pinched triangles, spinach. Made entirely from scratch, the pies are sold fresh-baked each day, or frozen for cook-at-home. “I didn’t learn to bake these when I was growing up,” Georgette explains, “because in Lebanon, you would cook the filling at home and bring it to your neighborhood bakery, where they would make the dough and finish the baking.” She’ll make three hundred pies the next week and the week after that, too, along with several hundred kefta balls, stuffed grape leaves, baba ghanoush, hummus and little pizzas topped with za’atar.

Georgette has offered to teach me to cook one of her favorite recipes, and I’m eager to spend time at the stove with her. First, though, there is coffee — an offering of hospitality and a necessary afternoon pick-me-up.

I sit at one of the little tables in the wouldn’t-this-make-a-nice-cafe-someday side of the store. Georgette brings out a tray with a long-handled coffee pot and tiny porcelain cups. I confess that, on my way to meet her, I’d picked up a rather large iced coffee from the Dunkin’ Donuts up the road. She laughs, and in a minute I understand why. One sip of her super-strong Turkish coffee revives me as the iced coffee did not, and I’m ready to cook.

When I first moved to Boston’s South End more than twenty-five years ago, the neighborhood housed an eclectic mix of artists, students, yuppies, and first-generation immigrants from Puerto Rico, China, Syria and Lebanon. I couldn’t have been happier. We had local markets galore, including our own pita bread bakery. In fact, the desire to learn a particular garlic chicken recipe, popular at a Lebanese restaurant down the block from our house, started me on my food-writing career. When we came to Glocester, I missed the easy access to the spices, cheeses, condiments and olives.

Hallak Middle East Market has all of those things, and more — it has Georgette and Joseph Hallak, who emigrated from East Beirut in 2000. In Lebanon, they had been prosperous owners of a department store that sold women’s lingerie and clothing for newborns. “We used to live a beautiful life,” Georgette recalls. “We came every summer to the United States and visited with my parents and brother who were living in Central Falls. In fact, we were married here in 1979. We had a successful business, with many people working for us. Our kids went to the best private schools.”

Then, in the 1990s, the political situation in Lebanon started to destabilize, and the economy crashed along with it. The Hallaks sent their four children to live with family in Rhode Island, and for ten months Georgette and Joseph struggled to salvage what they could and leave Beirut. They arrived in Providence with no work and no money. Joseph suffered from depression; Georgette worked as a clerk at JC Penney. Their young children pitched in with after-school jobs.

Homesick for foods from their country, the Hallaks shopped every week at the Middle East Market, which was owned by an Iranian engineer who discovered he didn’t enjoy running his own business. In 2004, he asked the Hallaks if they might be interested in buying the market. They jumped at the opportunity, and with help from their family, Georgette, Joseph and their son, Adel (now a senior management major at Rhode Island College), went into the grocery business. They knocked down walls, cleaned and lightened the space, and began, literally, to rebuild their lives.

Eleni Katsios is one of the regulars who come to Hallak Middle East Market every week, or every month, for their fix of pistachios, cheese, yogurt, olives and the friendly shopping experience. She and I met in the olive/cheese/coffee aisle. We were shopping in opposite directions; she’d bought a few pounds of olives, scooped out of large bins, and I had a tin of Turkish coffee and some cheese. Eleni saw me reach for pilaf noodles (Georgette taught me the proper Arabic name: chayreyé; I’d been buying these for years, but didn’t know what they were called) and asked how I cook them. We enjoyed a brief exchange of recipes, a peek into each other’s shopping carts, and then I moved on to the olives while she headed towards the cheese.
For cooks whose heritage lies in the Mideast, the Hallaks stock an appealing variety of grocery items, bulk spices and authentic condiments. Even if you know little about the cooking of this region, you’ll love this market. Georgette graciously offers recipes, advice and information about any of the ingredients in the store. You can taste and sniff and be inspired.

Each brightly lit, well-organized aisle displays items you’d expect, along with wonderful surprises and incredible bargains on items like pomegranate juice, olives, peeled pistachios and chickpeas. Beware of sensory overload — the aromas, the colors, even the labels will seduce you.

In one corner, a glass-fronted refrigerator showcases cheeses in tubs, jars, wheels, blocks and bags: Armenian string cheese; kashkaval (a sheep’s milk cheese from Bulgaria), French feta, myzithra, farmers cheese, pasteurized kefir cheese. Treat yourself to some unsalted Danish butter and Greek yogurt to spread on the authentic pita bread that gets delivered once a week.

Peruse the jars of pickles (bright purple turnips, hot peppers, eggplant, okra) and the bags of shelled pistachios, pine nuts, slivered almonds and sesame seeds. Past the coffees and teas (including yerba mate from Argentina), you’ll see the savory seasonings: organic Lebanese olive oil from the Koura Valley of North Lebanon ($10 for 750 ml.); harissa, the fiery condiment from Tunisia; and khoresh fesenjoon, a walnut and pomegranate spread that’s great on slivers of toasted pita bread.

The scent of olive brine hits you long before you get to the bins that line the rear wall. Fill a bag with kalamata, hot green, Greek green and black, or marinated olives, only $2 per pound. Next to the olives in a large freezer, you’ll find fillo dough, pita and lamejun (bread with a meat filling).

Up the next aisle, there are goodies too numerous to mention: tahini, the indispensable sesame paste for hummus; pomegranate molasses, a wonderful glaze for chicken or turkey; rose water; citron, quince, apricot and fig jams. Then come the spices, both the usual (allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, fenugreek) and the unusual (ground sour grape, sumac, dried leeks). And don’t forget dessert; toasted nuts, sesame candies, Arabic sweets in delicate birds’ nests made of crunchy noodles, sesame-flavor-ed halvah, and figs make an elegant and impressive dessert tray.

In any market, the cookware shelves are my Achilles’ heel. If cookware is your thing, scan the shelves for: a couscoussiere (a double-boiler for making traditional couscous and stews — less than $40); a stovetop coffee maker with some fresh-ground Turkish coffee and instructions for brewing; authentic wood-handled flat shish kabob skewers; decorative and practical wooden ma’amoul molds for cookies (or butter or chocolate); and a selection of olive soaps.

Back in the kitchen Georgette chops onions and rinses lentils and rice for mjedera, a vegetarian dish that uses everyday ingredients. We spend forty-five minutes cooking the lentils and rice, letting the onions sizzle in oil, seasoning and combining — and sharing cooking tips and memories of family kitchens when we were young. We each take a plate of mjedera, of course, but the rest finds its way onto the next day’s takeout menu, along with those amazing hand pies, falafel (chickpea fritters), stuffed grape leaves, kibbe and other Lebanese specialties.

When I finally tear myself away from Georgette’s kitchen, I shop for some appetizers (cheese, olives, bread, pickles, baba ghanoush, stuffed grape leaves) and dessert (medjool dates, baklava, halvah) for an upcoming party. Almost out the door, I turn back to snag a couple of vegetable pies — a perfect dinner for two. &
Hallak Middle East Market, 1455 Mineral Spring Avenue, North Providence, 354-8677. To contact Lydia Walshin directly, e-mail lydia@ninecooks.com.

MJEDERA

(Lentils with Rice and Onions)
Georgette Hallak’s version of a dish once considered “poor people’s food,” mjedera (pronounced JED-eh-rah) is a popular Lenten recipe. Simple ingredients combine to make a complete protein that’s a great vegetarian main dish, or a side dish for roast chicken or lamb. Serves 4-6.

1 quart water
1 cup large brown lentils, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup long grain white rice, rinsed and drained
1 onion, diced
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Chopped parsley for garnish

In a straight-sided pot, bring water to a boil. Add the lentils. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook for 15 minutes, or until lentils are plump. Stir in cumin, black pepper and rice, and continue to cook over lowest heat until all liquid is absorbed and the rice is cooked (if necessary, add a tablespoon or two of water to keep the rice and lentils from sticking).

In the meantime, cook the onions. In a saute pan, add olive and vegetable oils, and set pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally until onions are translucent and just starting to brown, about 10 minutes.

When the rice is cooked, stir in the onions and all of the oil. Stir well to combine and place in a serving bowl, topped with chopped parsley. Serve hot.

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