Back when I was in high school, my friend Sandy and I would often grab a commuter train in New Jersey and head to Greenwich Village. We spent $3.00 on lunch at Amy’s on University Place, a vegetarian sandwich and salad shop where we always ordered a salad pita and helped ourselves to the added bonus: coolers of free spring water or mint tea. One of the pitas that follow is filled with a standard Greek salad mixture (like the one at Amy’s) while the other has a Turkish-style eggplant salad that I make all summer long. Both salads are also perfect as appetizers or side dishes with pita or other bread.
4 pitas, below, warmed right before filling
Greek Salad or Eggplant Salad, below
Cut the top 1 to 2 inches from the pitas and divide the salad equally among them. Serve immediately.
2 cups 1/2-inch ribbons romaine lettuce
1 large or 2 medium ripe tomatoes, 6 to 8 ounces, halved, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 medium cucumber, 4 to 5 ounces, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced
1/2 small red or green bell pepper, about 2 ounces, cut into thin slices
1/4 medium red onion, about 2 ounces, thinly sliced from stem to root end
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped pitted Kalamata or other flavorful black olives
3/4 cup, about 3 ounces, crumbled feta cheese
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice, strained before measuring, or more or less to taste
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
Freshly ground black pepper
Combine all the vegetables in a mixing bowl. Sprinkle on the crumbled cheese, olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, and pepper. Use a rubber spatula to fold everything together thoroughly. Taste for seasoning—it might need a pinch of salt, but be careful since both the olives and cheese are quite salty.
You can prepare this with eggplant that has been baked whole until it collapses, scraping out the flesh to a colander, rinsing it under running cold water, squeezing it dry, and chopping it by hand, but I prefer the diced eggplant below which is a little chewier.
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium eggplant, about 1 1/2 pounds, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 medium clove garlic, peeled and finely grated
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice, strained before measuring
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 small cucumber, about 2 ounces, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 small tomato, about 3 ounces, halved, seeded, and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 small red or green bell pepper, about 2 ounces, cut into 1/4-inch dice
3 scallions, white part only, rinsed, trimmed, and finely sliced
To cook the eggplant, set a rack in the middle level of the oven and preheat to 375˚F. Grease a jelly-roll pan or half-sheet pan with the olive oil, spread out the diced eggplant on it, and sprinkle with the salt. Bake the eggplant until it is cooked through and softened, opening the oven and stirring occasionally, 20 to 25 minutes.
Cool the eggplant on the pan, then scrape it into a medium mixing bowl.
Stir the garlic and lemon juice together and sprinkle over the eggplant, followed by the oil, parsley, and pepper. Use a medium rubber spatula to fold everything together.
Sprinkle on the cucumber, tomato, bell pepper, and scallions, and fold again. Taste for seasoning and adjust with salt, pepper, and lemon juice if necessary.
For advance preparation, cover and chill the salad and bring it back to room temperature before serving. After being refrigerated, it may need to be perked up again with a little salt or lemon juice.
Pita, the Middle Eastern bread that bakes to a hollow disk with a “pocket,” is as easy to prepare as it is fascinating to watch as it inflates in the oven. This recipe comes from my friends Jennifer Morris and Hosni Emam and was featured at Habibi and Habibi Café, their two Egyptian restaurants in Hong Kong. Habibi was also the place where I made my public belly-dancing debut. On my first trip to Asia, Jennifer had met me at the airport, we stopped to drop off my luggage at their apartment, then headed to Habibi for dinner. Midway through the excellent meal of meze and roast lamb, the music started and three beautifully costumed dancers started moving through the restaurant and dancing, weaving around the tables. One dancer stopped at our table and beckoned me to join her. I decided to be a sport, so, jetlagged and exhausted, I stood up and tried to emulate her movements, my own belly decorously covered by a baggy polo shirt. Fortunately the dancer moved on to find another victim after only a couple of minutes, and I was able to finish my meal peacefully. It was an unusual beginning for what tuned out to be a fabulous visit.
Makes twelve 6-inch round pitas
3 3/4 cups bread flour
1 1/4 cups room temperature tap water, about 75°F
2 1/4 teaspoons fine granulated active dry or instant yeast
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/4 teaspoons fine sea salt
One baking stone or one large cookie sheet or inverted jelly-roll pan
Whisk the water and yeast together in the bowl of an electric mixer. Wait 30 seconds, whisk again, then whisk in the oil. Use a large rubber spatula to stir in the flour a little at a time until it is completely absorbed.
Mix with the dough hook on low speed until the dough is smooth, about 2 minutes. Stop the mixer and let the dough rest for 10 minutes.
Start the mixer on medium speed and sprinkle in the salt. Mix until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 2 minutes. Scrape the dough into an oiled bowl and turn it over so that the top is oiled. Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough ferment until it is almost doubled in bulk, about 30 minutes.
Scrape the dough onto a floured work surface and use a bench scraper to divide it into 12 equal pieces, each about 65 grams. To round each piece of dough, move one to a flour-free place in front of you. Cup your right hand over the piece of dough so that the top of your palm just beyond your fingers is touching the dough. Press the piece of dough and move your hand in a circular motion at the same time. If you’re pressing hard enough you’ll be able to feel the dough turning into a sphere. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough. Cover the pieces of dough as they are rounded. After they’re all rounded, let them rest for 10 minutes.
Set a rack in the middle level of the oven, place a baking stone, heavy cookie sheet (or two), or an inverted jelly-roll pan on the rack and preheat to 500˚F.
Place a rounded piece of dough on a lightly floured work surface, flour it, and use the palm of your hand to press it to a fat disk. Use a small rolling pin to roll over the dough, without rolling over the end in the same direction and turning it frequently, to a 6-inch disk. Set the rolled dough aside, covered. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough. Do not stack the dough.
Once all the pitas have been formed, bake them starting with the first ones you rolled. Open the oven and quickly slide as many as will fit on the stone or pan. Bake the pitas until they are nicely inflated and look like little spheres, about 3 minutes. Use a wide spatula to remove them from the oven and let them cool on a rack where they’ll deflate but shouldn’t stick back together. Continue baking the remaining pitas the same way.
If using the same day, store the cooled pitas in a plastic bag. Wrap and freeze for longer storage. Defrost and reheat at 400˚F for a minute or two before serving.