I met chef Mike Elmachtoub when someone recommended his catering company to me. I called Urban Crunch Meal Prep & Catering and ordered some pistachio-crusted salmon and filet mignon for my staff. The food was well received, so I began to order more and more from Urban Crunch. Chef and owner Mike and I got to talking about his upbringing in Lebanon and how his father owned multiple restaurants all over the world.
Mike knew he wanted to be in the restaurant business himself, so he studied culinary arts at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. (He’s lived in the U.S. since 2001.) Now his catering company is partnered with Crunch Fitness, and he also delivers pre-cooked meal plans all over Los Angeles, Orange, and Ventura Counties in California. He has plans to go national soon. Like me, he is very conscious of dietary restrictions and will craft meals for those who need gluten-free, ketogenic, or vegetarian options.
I quizzed him about Lebanese cuisine. Of course, I knew about kebabs and hummus, baba ghanoush (the smoky eggplant dip) and falafel, shwarma and baklava, but I wanted to know what people in Lebanon cooked at home. He explained that where he grew up in the mountains near Beirut, people had their own kitchen gardens and grew much of their own produce. He and his family ate a lot of beans and salads like tabbouleh, made with parsley and cracked bulgur, and fatoush salad, with toasted pita croutons and a sprinkling of ground sumac. Lemon juice and olive oil play a starring role in his home cuisine, which is predominantly healthy.
Mike explained to me that spices are integral to Lebanese cuisine and he employs them regularly in his cooking, even in the lunches he makes for the LA Galaxy daily. He loves to use cumin (which, I have to admit, is not my favorite spice), allspice, and the Middle Eastern (not to be confused with the Japanese) 7-spice mixture of black pepper, cumin, paprika, ground coriander, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom. Some 7-spice blends include allspice, white pepper, fenugreek, ground ginger, and/or ground cloves. This spice blend is used in many meat dishes, rice dishes, and plenty of other Lebanese classics.
Za’atar is another famous spice mix used in Lebanese cuisine. It consists of thyme, cumin, coriander, sesame seeds, and ground sumac. I’ve created a Za’atar Spice Blend with added red chili flakes for some zing. You can find it below. Za’atar is often sprinkled on flatbread, cheese, eggs, and other Lebanese snacks.
Mike loves fusion cuisine as much as I do. He explained to me that Spanish flavors and Lebanese flavors meld together very well. We talked about shakshuka, a tomato sauce that I encountered in Israeli cuisine that he also knows from Lebanon. Below is my Shakshuka recipe.
Mike’s wife Sara loves to bake Lebanese desserts with her Mother Mona. I’m partial to their tiny pieces of baklava and their Lebanese pastry fingers with dates. Inspired by them and by the cardamom that is so often used in Lebanese cuisine, I came up with Lebanese-American Oatmeal Date Cookies. My recipe is below.
Finally, Mike gave me his recipe for Braised Lamb Shanks inspired by his homeland. Enjoy!
This dish is courtesy of my friend chef Mike Elmachtoub of Urban Crunch Meal Prep & Catering. It’s delicious served over saffron rice or egg noodles alongside sautéed rapini or kale.
Lamb is full of vitamins and minerals like DNA-repairing niacin, riboflavin for a healthy nervous system, energy-producing vitamin B12, calcium for proper nerve signaling, and protein-building phosphorous, not to mention protein itself.
4 lamb shanks, trimmed of the white/silver skin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup diced onions
½ cup diced carrots
½ cup sliced celery
8 cloves garlic, pressed or crushed
2 cups Cabernet (or other variety of red wine such as Syrah)
3 cups beef demi-glace (or beef stock)
2 Tbs. tomato paste
1 sprig of fresh thyme (or 2 tsp. dried thyme)
1 sprig of fresh oregano (or 2 tsp. dried oregano)
1 sprig of fresh rosemary (or 1 tsp. dried rosemary)
1 sprig of fresh tarragon (or 1 tsp. dried tarragon)
2 bay leaves, fresh or dried
Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.
1. Season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper to taste.
2. Place an oven-ready pan, such as a Le Creuset or heavy roasting pan, on the stove over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and the lamb shanks and sear for 10 minutes on each side.
3. Set the lamb shanks aside and add the onions, carrots, celery, and garlic to the pan. Sauté for about 10 minutes or until caramelized. Add more olive oil if needed.
4. Add the red wine and deglaze the pan. Add the demi-glace and tomato paste and stir to incorporate.
5. Add the lamb shanks and enough water to mostly cover the shanks. Cover the pan with its lid or aluminum foil and braise in the oven at 250 degrees F for 4 hours.
This dish will blow your guests away at brunch! It’s an Israeli-by-way-of-Tunisia tomato-pepper stew with poached eggs. You can forgo the eggs and use the sauce with other proteins, like chicken or
peeled shrimp if you prefer. Harissa is a canned or jarred hot pepper paste found in Middle Eastern markets. I found it at Trader Joe’s and on Amazon.
A Harvard study of 47,000 men published in 1995 by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that those who ate ten servings or more per week of tomatoes, tomato sauce, pizza sauce and tomato juice had 45 percent fewer prostate cancers than those who ate only two servings per week. The anti-cancer properties of lycopene are increased by consuming foods with healthy fats such as olive oil.
1 Tbs. olive oil
1/2 onion, diced
1 clove garlic, pressed or minced
2 red bell peppers, seeded and cut into ¼-inch pieces
4 cups ripe diced tomatoes, or 2 cans (14 oz. each) diced tomatoes
2 Tbs. tomato paste
2 Tbs. harissa
1 tsp. mild chili powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. Spanish or Hungarian paprika
Pinch of cayenne pepper, or more to taste—it’s hot!
1 tsp. honey (optional)
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 Tbs. chopped fresh flat leaf parsley for garnish
1. Heat the olive oil in a deep, large skillet over medium heat. Add the chopped onion, sauté several minutes until the onion begins to soften. Add the garlic and continue to sauté for another minute.
2. Add the bell peppers and sauté for about 5 minutes or until softened.
3. Add the tomatoes and tomato paste to the pan and stir. Add the harissa, spices, and honey. Stir and simmer over medium heat for 5-7 minutes or until it starts to reduce.
4. Taste the mixture and adjust the spices to your preference. Add salt and pepper to taste, more honey for sweetness, or more cayenne pepper for a spicier kick.
5. Make 6 indentations in the sauce, evenly spaced (five around the outer edge of the pan and one in the middle). Crack the eggs, one at a time, directly into the dips in the sauce.
6. Cover the pan and allow the eggs to cook sunny-side-up for 10-15 minutes, or to your desired hardness. Garnish with the parsley.
Ketogenic or Low-Carb
This spice mix is used all over the Middle East in vegetable dishes, on flatbreads, in yogurt dips, and more. I’ve made the chili flakes optional—they aren’t traditional, but they do add a nice zing. If you are going to use whole cumin or coriander seeds, toast them and then grind them. Otherwise, feel free to use ground spices.
Thyme and cumin contain copper which forms collagen for skin, bone, and joint health; protects nerves; and produces energy. Coriander seeds have selenium which detoxifies organs, helps skin stay elastic, and increases resistance to infection.
1 Tbs. dried thyme, crushed (or oregano)
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 Tbs. ground coriander
1 Tbs. toasted sesame seeds
1 Tbs. ground sumac
½ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. chili flakes (optional)
1. Mix all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Store in an airtight container in the freezer for optimal freshness.
I love classic American oatmeal cookies, but I added Lebanese elements like dates and cardamom to make them more interesting and healthier. These sweet treats have less butter and sugar than regular recipes because of the natural sweetness dates add. Try using whole-wheat flour in addition to traditional all-purpose for a boost of fiber and nutrients while maintaining a soft texture. To learn more about using monk fruit sweetener in place of sugar, see my recipe for Chinese Monk Fruit Spice Cookies.
Dates are full of fiber and also offer B vitamins (for energy), potassium (for strong bones), and iron (for strength). Adding oats to your cookies boosts the fiber content, too. Cardamom has eucalyptol, an anti-inflammatory that breaks down mucus for lung and digestive support.
YIELDS 30 Cookies
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. cardamom
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup light brown sugar, packed or Lakanto golden monk fruit sweetener
¼ cup granulated sugar or Lakanto classic monk fruit sweetener
2 large eggs
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
3 cups old fashioned rolled oats
1 ½ cup chopped, pitted Medjool dates
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.
1. Blend the flours, baking soda, salt, and cardamom in a medium bowl.
2. In a separate bowl, blend the butter, sugars, eggs, and vanilla.
3. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and blend together with a spoon. Mix in the oats and dates until combined.
4. Drop rounded tablespoons of dough two inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet.
5. Bake 8-10 minutes or until cookies are golden brown. Transfer to cooling racks and cool completely.
Sugar-free if using monk fruit sweetener, but dates have plenty of fructose