By Jay Hajj and Kerry J. Byrne. Page Street Publishing. $21.99

I was primed to like “Beirut to Boston: A Cookbook: Comfort Food Inspired by a Rags-to-Restaurants Story” for, perhaps, foolish reasons. I love Lebanese food, and I used to live in Boston. And in many ways, I did like the book, which tells the tale of Jay Hajj, who came to Boston from war-torn Lebanon as a boy of 8 and grew up to own Mike’s City Diner in the city’s South End.

It’s an unpretentious and heartfelt cookbook, from the photo of his parents on the title page – his mom in pearls and a ruffled, lavender dress; to the introduction, where Hajj speaks movingly of the “American Dream … alive and well. I know because I’ve lived it”; to the relaxed juxtaposition of Yankee/American and Lebanese food. He includes, for example, an entire chapter on “The All-American Two-Turkey Thanksgiving,” as well as recipes like Vinny Marino’s Brickhouse Cafe Meatballs and Boston Cream Pie. These are interspersed with foods from Hajj’s heritage – Hashweh (Lebanese rice with ground lamb, saffron and cinnamon) and Batinjan Makdous (pickled stuffed baby eggplant) – and with recipes that combine the two.

“Beirut to Boston” includes lots of bold photos, and plenty of Hajj’s personal stories, which have a patriotic and sunny outlook; chapter six is titled “Blessed in Boston.” Guy Fieri wrote the foreword, and President Clinton drops in for smoked ham and eggs with grits and cornbread – clearly his pre-vegan days. (Every self-respecting American diner needs a visiting president.) The book is a paperback, and unlike many other (lavish, high-design) cookbooks I’ve spent time with recently, I wouldn’t feel bad if I splotched its pages with olive oil and tomato paste.

It feels like the sort of cookbook that both red and blue state cooks might agree on.

In the kitchen, my assessment was a little more mixed. The Fasoulia, or Lebanese lamb shank and white bean stew, smelled fantastic as it baked and made a very pleasant homey stew for a chilly evening. That said, the two cinnamon sticks called for gave plenty of flavor; next time I’d skip the additional 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon.

The Mujadara (Lebanese lentils and rice) was the sort of comforting, humble dish I could eat almost every night. The Avocado & Lime Hummus – a cross between guacamole and hummus – was a pleasant dip, although I might reduce the amount of tahini to better suit my preferences, and I found myself wondering, Why load up hummus with avocados when the classic version is so very good? But that’s just me, an occasional purist. The recipe for Namoura, or semolina coconut cake, just didn’t work for me. There wasn’t enough sugar syrup to go around, and my cake was far flatter and paler (though baked through) than that shown in the photo.

To return to that hummus, the recipe claimed to serve 2 to 4. Mine made a generous 4 cups; does Hajj think each eater needs 2 cups of hummus? The measurements for lime juice and chickpeas were listed in ounces, while the tahini was measured in cups. “Bad editing. Lazy recipe development,” commented a recipe developer colleague of mine. Niggling points, perhaps, but confusing nonetheless. Also, the garnish called for in the recipe did not match the garnish pictured in the photo. Did the photographer go rogue? Even so, my worries were accumulating.

I had my eye on the Muhamarah Dip to try next, but when I read it, I got gun shy. Proportionally, it called for an awful lot of (expensive) pomegranate syrup (1/2 cup) and an awful lot of (expensive) olive oil (6 ounces), too.

I identified what looked like another serving size issue in Hajj’s recipe for Locke-Ober’s Lobster Savannah. It called for four 2-pound lobsters and 2 cups of cream to serve 2 to 4. Four people yes, but two? Meaning each eater gets two hefty lobsters and 1 cup of cream? Could I/did I trust these measurements?

Trust is an essential currency in cookbooks. If a recipe fails, you’ve wasted both your hard-earned money and your meager free time. Plenty of other recipes in “Beirut to Boston” beckon, among them the Grilled Swordfish in Charred Grape Leaves, Freekeh Fattoush Salad and Beef Short Rib Shepherd’s Pie, but a question lingers. Given the thousands of other sources for recipes, am I inclined to give the book another chance or do I move on?


From “Beirut to Boston” by Jay Hajj. I found that adding baking soda to the water, as Hajj’s recipe instructs, made the beans cook much faster than usual, and I needed nowhere near the 2 to 3 hours he mentions.

Yields a generous 4 cups

4 ounces dried chickpeas

1 teaspoon baking soda

4 ounces starchy water, reserved from preparing chickpeas

3 ounces fresh lime juice

2 slightly soft avocados, peeled, pit removed and chopped or mashed

2 cloves very fresh garlic, mashed

1/2 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin

3/4 cup tahini

For garnish: 2 slivers fresh avocado, sprinkle of freshly cracked black pepper, pinch of sumac or paprika, drizzle of olive oil

To prepare the chickpeas, put them in a medium-sized bowl with 2 cups water. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon baking soda. There should be enough room in the bowl to allow the peas to double in size. Soak overnight.

Rinse the chickpeas under cold water, then place in a medium-sized saucepan. Add just enough water to cover the peas by 2 to 3 inches. Add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon baking soda. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cover. When some of the chickpeas have started to split, shut off the heat; commercial chickpeas can take 2 to 3 hours to begin to split. Let cool, uncovered, at least 2 hours. Drain the peas, reserving the starchy water.

Add the cooked chickpeas, starchy water, lime juice, avocados, garlic, salt, pepper and cumin to the container of a high-speed food processor. Blend for as long as it takes for the mixture to become completely smooth, scraping down the sides as needed. If the mixture is so thick that the processor slows down, add some additional starchy water and the processor will regain speed.

Add the tahini and blend until completely creamy again. Check the taste and add more salt or lime juice, if desired.

Refrigerate the hummus until ready to serve. Check the taste again when chilled and season as desired. Transfer the hummus to a serving bowl. Form a well in the middle and fill the well with garnish: avocado slices, pepper, sumac and olive oil.

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