Mediterranean in Little Italy: Middle Eastern Comfort in Saffron, Harissa, and Tahini
Chef Olivia Hayo of Beautiful Food Inside + Out re-creates her culinary memories of the Mediterranean using inspiration and local, seasonal ingredients, from her home in San Diego's Little Italy. This week, treasures from the Nazareth central market inspire a meal of memory-fueled comfort food.
The afternoon call to prayer echoed down the solitary, polished stone corridor leading to Nazareth’s central market. Stacks of velvety-green grape leaves, woven bags of sour plums, and piles of fragrant purple garlic served as my trail heads.
The aroma of grilled meat and charred vegetables nudged me further into the maze of produce, baked goods, and spice stalls. Nearby, murmurs became shouts and then friendly laughs as locals engaged in a lively negotiation over cookware.
I followed the regular, who casually greeted each other as they paused at their favorite vendors, effortlessly navigating the dizzying streets of the market.
Just off the main road, I spotted a door under a quiet stone archway. Tall barrels filled with dried nuts, fruit, and spices seemed to stand guard. The vibrant colors and scents drew me inside where a young shopkeeper welcomed me with a raised eyebrow and a smile.
Baskets of wrinkled chilies, bottles of orange blossom water, and jars of sesame paste lined the walls. I made my way through shelves brimming with containers, stopping to admire gem-toned spices, toasted seeds, and dried herbs. Row after row offered new possibilities. In the end, I narrowed my selections to a few gems: harissa, a spicy Middle Eastern chili pepper paste, sticky-sweet dates, tahini sesame paste, and earthy saffron.
Those treasures have since become staples of my pantry, and when I find myself craving the robust flavors of the Middle East, I use them to make a celebratory meal of fiery harissa-roasted chicken, date-studded saffron rice with buttery pine nuts, and a creamy tahini sauce.