Druze Pita with Brown Rice and Orange Pilaf, Canary Beans, Olive and Feta Salad and Winter Greens with Chickpea Sauce

I first had Druze pita bread at Gazala’s, a tiny, inexpensive and wonderful restaurant not far from Times Square in New York City. In fact, the site of Gazala herself, a young Israeli Druze woman, standing in the front window of her establishment cooking her platter-sized, super-thin rounds of bread on what looked like an overturned wok is what drew us in the door.

The Druze are a small religious sect living in tightly-knit communities primarily in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. They often farm for a living and so have a cuisine rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, grains and dairy, as well as olive oil and traditional Middle Eastern spices. Meat is a special occasion kind of food in many Druze communities, which means that a Druze restaurant is a great place to take a vegetarian.

We eat at Gazala’s often when we’re in Hell’s Kitchen. We gobble up foul moudamas (fava beans with lemon, garlic and olive oil) and bourekas (flaky phyllo pastries filled with cheese and vegetables), salads full of sun-dried peppers, onions and parsley, lamb kebabs and open-faced pies of thicker pita topped with herbs and excellent olive oil.

But I think my favorite dish from Gazala’s are her wraps, made with those giant, thin pita breads, filled with herbs and greens, delicious sauces and everything from hummus to grilled chicken to goat cheese. Kind of like a Middle Eastern burrito.

I was dreaming of those wraps the other day, when I decided to try to figure out how to make Druze pita bread at home. It turns out it’s not so hard. After looking at a few recipes that seemed off the mark (they all employed baking powder and that couldn’t be right), I came up with the idea of using a no-knead, high water to flour ratio yeast dough, the kind that is typically used for making crusty European style loaves.

All you have to do is mix together a few ingredients and let them rest a while – a task that can be done in the morning before work. The resulting dough is tacky and very stretchy. With lots of flour to prevent sticking, it rolls out nearly paper thin, and then is cooked on the dome of a steel or cast-iron wok (do NOT use a teflon-coated wok) which has been inverted over a gas burner.

If you don’t have a gas stove or a suitable wok, this dough will cook just fine in a heavy skillet over an electric burner. You just won’t be able to roll your pitas out to the mind-boggling dimensions of real Druze pita.

Fill your wraps in the Druze fashion, with whatever is in season. If you need inspiration, you’ll find some seasonal recipes below that work well together in a wrap: a healthy brown rice pilaf brightened with fresh orange juice; slow-cooked canary beans; a feta and olive salad vibrant with hot red pepper and lemon rind; and fresh winter greens (local farmer’s markets are full of them right now) topped with a tangy, garlicky combination of hummus and yogurt.

Druze Pita Bread

  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1-1/2 cups lukewarm water
  • 3 cups bread or unbleached white flour (plus more for rolling)
  • 1 cup whole wheat or white wheat flour
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (or 1 teaspoon fine salt)
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Combine the yeast with the warm water and set aside. In a large bowl, stir together the remaining ingredients until well combined. Stir the yeast up from the bottom of the water, then pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and stir the dough until it is well mixed – additional kneading isn’t necessary. The dough will be very sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp cloth and set aside for at least two hours, though it can also be mixed in the morning, left in a cool spot and then cooked in the evening.

Turn the dough onto a well-floured counter and pat it into a rectangle about 2 inches wide and ten inches long. Don’t knead the dough – this will just make it tougher to roll. Cut the dough into eight equal pieces (twelve if you will be cooking the bread in a 12 inch skillet rather than on an overturned wok). Pat each piece into a flattened rough circle, using as much flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking, and covering the pieces with plastic wrap as they are shaped.

When all the pieces have been shaped, heat the overturned wok or skillet (don’t flip the skillet, but use it in the usual manner) over a medium gas flame. Meanwhile, roll the pieces of dough into very thin rounds about 14 inches in diameter (smaller, if using the skillet), using as much flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking. If a piece of dough toughens as it is rolled and stops stretching readily, set it aside under plastic wrap to relax for a bit and begin rolling another piece.

Cook the rounds as they are rolled, turning the gas up to medium high as the pita is

Druze pita cooking on an overturned wok

Druze pita cooking on an overturned cast iron wok

Fillings for Druze pita

from top right: feta and olive salad, brown rice and orange pilaf, canary beans and winter greens with chickpea sauce

dropped onto the wok. The uncooked breads will be a bit fragile. One method of moving them is to fold the well-floured rounds in half and then lift them carefully, placing them in the center of the hot wok or skillet and then flipping them open. If desired, pull gently at the pita’s edge to stretch it even thinner.

Keep rolling the remaining pieces of dough as each pita cooks, but be sure to keep a close eye on them so they don’t burn. The pita will begin to bubble almost immediately. After a minute or so, use a spatula or carefully grab the edge of the pita with your fingertips and quickly flip it over to cook on the other side. If the temperature is correct, the pita have several small brown spots on the cooked side. Adjust the temperature up or down if necessary. Allow the pita to cook for about thirty seconds more, until it bubbles and has brown spots on the bottom as well. Using your fingertips or a spatula, flip the dough onto a plate to cool.

The bread may be eaten immediately or rolled up and stored in a plastic bag for a day or two.

Brown Rice and Orange Pilaf

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter (if using salted butter, reduce the added salt)
  • 1 small onion, peeled and minced (about 1/2 cup)
  • the grated rind and juice of one orange or clementine, preferably organic (be sure the citrus is very well washed before grating the rind)
  • 1 cup long grain brown rice, well rinsed in cold water and drained
  • enough water or stock to make 1-1/2 cups liquid when mixed with the orange juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (less if using stock and it is salty)
  • a handful of washed and chopped fresh parsley, for garnish (optional)
  • ground sumac, for garnish (optional, see note)

Heat the oil and butter together in a medium pot until the butter has melted. Add the onion and allow it to sweat over medium-low heat until it is translucent, about 5-10 minutes – don’t let it brown. Add the grated rind and allow it to cook for a minute or two.

Add the rice and stir well. Cook over low heat for ten minutes or so, until the rice looks a bit translucent but is not browned.

Meanwhile, combine the orange juice with the water to make 1-1/2 cups of liquid. When the rice is translucent, pour in the liquid and add the salt. Stir well and turn up the heat until the mixture comes to a boil. Turn the heat to low, cover the pot and cook, undisturbed for an additional thirty minutes or so, until all the liquid has evaporated and you can hear a slight sizzling sound from the pot when you lift the lid.

Stir the rice to aerate it, return the cover to the pot and allow the rice to rest for ten minutes before serving, sprinkled with chopped parsley and sumac, if desired.

Note: Ground sumac is a coarse powder made from dried, tart, red berries. It is imported from the Middle East and is available in specialty food stores or from the internet.

Canary Beans with Garlic, Lemon and Olive Oil

  • 1 cup dried canary beans (or an other medium-sized dried bean such as cranberry or pinto) cleaned then soaked in water overnight or brought to a boil and soaked one hour
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and minced (about 1 cup)
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 3 cups of water
  • 1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
  • 5 cloves of garlic
  • the juice of 1 large or 2 small lemons (reserve the rind for Olives and Feta with Lemon)
  • hot red pepper paste, for garnish (optional)

Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot and then saute the onion over medium-low heat until it is translucent. Stir in the flour (if using) and cook, stirring for 1 or 2 minutes; do not let the mixture brown. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for an additional minute. Stir in the beans and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the water, turn the heat up to bring the liquid to a boil and then turn the heat to low, cover the pot and cook the beans slowly until tender. This will take anywhere from 1/2 hour to two hours depending upon how old and dry the beans are.

When the beans are fairly tender, add the salt (adding the salt too early toughens the bean skins). Stir in the garlic and lemon juice, return the lid to the pot and continue to cook for 10 or 15 additional minutes, until the beans are very soft.

Taste; add additional salt or lemon juice, if desired and drizzle with hot red pepper paste, if desired. Serve immediately.

The beans will keep well for one or two days in the refrigerator or may be frozen.

Spicy Olive, Feta and Lemon Salad

  • 4 ounces feta cheese, cubed
  • 1 cup Kalamata olives, drained and pitted
  • the grated or finely chopped rind of 1 well-washed lemon, preferably organic
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely ground dried hot red pepper (or to taste)
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Toss all ingredients together. Serve immediately or allow to marinate to develop the flavors. This will keep for 2 days in the refrigerator.

Winter Greens with Chickpea Yogurt Sauce

For the Salad:

  • fresh mixed winter greens, such as lettuce, spinach, tatsoi, baby kale, etc. – 1 good handful per person, washed and dried

For the Sauce:

  • 1 or 2 cloves garlic, chopped (or to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • the juice of one lemon (more to taste, if desired)
  • 1/4 cup tahini
  • water, as needed
  • 1 cup cooked chickpeas (canned is fine, but rinse them first)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon hot ground red pepper (optional)
  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt (can be low or full fat, as desired)

Mash the garlic with the salt. In a blender or food processor combine the garlic mixture, the salt, lemon juice and tahini and a few tablespoons of water. Pulse briefly until the mixture becomes homogenous, fairly thick and white. If necessary, add more water and pulse again. Add the chickpeas and pulse until smooth. Add the spices and yogurt and pulse again. Taste and adjust seasonings, if desired.

Serve the sauce and salad separately. Allow diners to drizzle their greens with the sauce, as desired.