Thursday, February 28, 2008

Fatayer for Breakfast

A variety of fatayer
One of my favorite things to eat, I have discovered is fatayer (often pronounced feteer or fata-er). Fatayer literally means pastry in Arabic. They are savory pockets of dough and are usually filled with a variety of things, the most popular of all being spinach (sabanekh). Other fillings include cheese (jubn) such as feta or halloumi, chicken (djaaj), meat - usually ground beef or lamb (laham), potato (batata) and a mixture of soft fresh Arabic cheese made from yogurt called labneh, and za'atar. Za'atar is an Arabic herb and spice blend, which can include thyme, fennel, cumin, sumac and sesame seeds, all which are ground together. Other herbs and spices can be included according to different geographic regions.

These turnovers can be baked or fried, the baked ones more commonly available here. Here in the Middle East they are usually eaten as a snack or light lunch, though I prefer them for breakfast. My personal favorite is the egg and cheese (bil jubn wa baydh) fatayer. They remind me of the breakfast egg and cheese bagels one can get in many coffee shops in New York. They are also relatively inexpensive, costing about 3 riyals apiece.

The origin of the fatayer are a bit cloudy, with the Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians and Egyptians all claiming it to have originated from them. Since I usually purchase them from Turkish restaurants they must have Turkish roots as well. They may also be a distant cousin of the Greek spinach turnovers called spanakopita.

Fatayer are very light yet filling. If made properly they are delicious, though in the beginning I ate a few which were just awful; bland, doughy and tasteless. I had given up on them for a while, but I spotted them on the menu at a small and insanely popular Turkish restaurant called Turkey Central. There are many Turkish establishments here; their kebabs are arguably the best I have eaten, and since they are inexpensive and extremely child friendly we frequent them often. Upon noticing them I thought, if all the other items on the menu are so good, let’s give the fatayer another chance.

They came unceremoniously on a plastic tray. The soft pillowy dough was baked until golden. Their tops were brushed with clarified butter (ghee) and sprinkled with sesame seeds. I had ordered a variety of fillings, cheese, eggs, lightly spiced chicken and lamb, and not one disappointed. I had found fatayer nirvana; they were doubtlessly the best I had eaten. There was plenty left over, so I had a few for breakfast the next morning. Now I sometimes purchase them solely for this, my infrequent indulgence.

The following is a recipe for spinach fatayer. Though the recipe gives instructions on how to make the dough, pre-made purchased bread dough, fresh or frozen, also works well.

Spinach Fatayer

For dough:
2 pounds (6 cups) all-purpose flour
1 envelope yeast, dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water with 1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup warmed milk
1 cup warm water

For filling:
4 bunches spinach, washed and chopped
Salt, to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
1 onion, finely grated
1 tablespoon sumac (available at Middle Eastern stores), optional

To make dough: Combine ingredients in a food processor until a stiff dough results. Add more warm water if needed. Let rise in a covered bowl for about 2 hours. Punch down dough and let rest for another hour until it rises again. Cut dough into 2-inch pieces and roll into balls. Place on an oiled pan and cover with a towel. Let dough rest for another 30 minutes.

To make filling: Wash and chop spinach. Sprinkle with salt to cause wilting. Squeeze water from spinach with your hands. Add oil, lemon, salt, onion and sumac if using.

To assemble: Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Use a rolling pin to roll each ball into a flat circle. Place 1 tablespoon spinach filling in the center. Pinch ends to meet in the middle to create a triangular shape. Let pies rest 15 minutes. Coat pan with oil and bake pies for 15 minutes or until browned.

Can be served warm or at room temperature. Makes 24.
Recipe courtesy of Blanche and Vera Araj from the San Jose Mercury News

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