LONDON — I’ve been waiting for the perfect dish to reintroduce my test kitchen colleague Noor Murad. I think this may be it. We’ve been working together for a while now, so I could have chosen from many recipes. But this one, for oven fries with tahini yogurt and smoky-sweet nuts, especially says “Noor” to me.
Noor always says she’s “Bahrain-made, New York-trained.” Luckily for me, London is now her stomping ground. Every day that Noor walks into the test kitchen, she brings her journey with her. Whether we’re working on a recipe for a column or for a cookbook, the ingredients, memories and stories she’s picked up on the way — from Bahrain to New York to London — are with us, too.
For example, we developed these oven fries in London in May, a month when it appeared to have rained, hailed or been extremely windy nearly every day. Rainy bank holidays, wind-swept attempts to eat outside, picnics abandoned in search of shelter: For Noor and I — both solar-powered by the Middle Eastern climate of our youths — it’s all so totally, brilliantly, stereotypically British.
We’ve both done our time at the British seaside, eating fish and chips from a paper bag targeted by greedy sea gulls, watching the good folk of a coastal town actively choosing to swim in the North Sea. I happily watched and ate but thought, nostalgically, “The Mediterranean, this is not.” Noor happily watched and ate but thought, controversially, “these British fish and chips — all this vinegar! — are overrated.”
We blew in to the test kitchen inspired, and set to work. We knew we loved chips — British chips, American fries. We knew we loved eating with our hands. We knew these little wedges of starch provide comfort and seaside sustenance like nothing else. We knew we didn’t want to go down the potatoes-doused-in-vinegar route, though — so we paused for thought.
Noor remembered her New York days, when she would go out with her buddies after a long shift in the restaurants they were starting out in. Late at night and early into the next morning, they’d pile into the Eveready Diner near Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for late-night snacks. The retro menu was barely looked at before the order was placed. It was disco fries every time, the diner’s “famous French fries smothered with brown gravy and shredded Cheddar cheese.” Add bacon and call it supper.
Happy though these memories are — and delicious as those disco fries still are, no doubt — this is where Noor’s Bahraini background took over. The disco fries’ melted cheese and brown gravy were swapped out for the tahini, yogurt and lemon juice sauce that courses through her veins. Urfa and Aleppo chile flakes were reached for to add flavor every bit as punchy as the bacon bits brought. The crunch came from pine nuts and almonds toasted gently in olive oil, which adorn so many of dishes from Noor’s Middle Eastern childhood.
We tried the dish. There was something missing: vinegar! Those North Sea chippies were on to something after all. We were a long way from dousing — we gently pickled herb stems in some vinegar instead — but, still, I smile to think that the sea gulls circling the British seaside have made their way into the food memory.
We tried the dish again. I was delighted. Noor was transported — to the English cobble-beach seaside, munching with mates; to the late-night American diner, decompressing with work buddies; to the car with her dad, eating Bahraini street food out of oil-stained paper bags, burning their tongues in the process. It’s home, from home, from home: reminiscent of all three places but, at the same time, completely and utterly Noor-ish.
And to Drink …
Fried potatoes go beautifully with dry sparkling wines. For the sake of argument, I’m perfectly willing to call these baked potatoes “oven fries,” and sparkling wines would be a great choice, whether Champagne, cava, crémant or the various Champagne facsimiles of the world. Yes, the toppings make this a slightly more complicated match, and so might any other dishes you are serving if this is part of a larger meal. Luckily you have numerous options. Dry rosés would match the Middle Eastern flavors. I’d be intrigued to try fino sherry, too. Orange wines, with their slight rasp of tannin, would be fascinating with this dish, whether from the country of Georgia, Slovenia or anywhere else. Sauvignon blancs and many other dry whites would go well, too, but I’d steer clear of reds. ERIC ASIMOV