Middle Eastern Fare, Willamette Valley Style

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Sam Smith

Portland, as you well know, is not in the Middle East. Geographically and gastronomically, the two are far apart. So what do you do if you open a locally sourced Middle Eastern–themed restaurant in the Pacific Northwest?

If you are Sam Smith – executive chef of Tusk, one of Food & Wine’s 2017 Restaurants of the Year – you get to know every farmer in the Willamette Valley, and you improvise.

“Middle Eastern food includes the produce it does because that is what grows there,” Sam says. “This point often gets lost in translation. When we opened Tusk in Portland, we couldn’t rely on Middle Eastern produce. Why force influence from elsewhere when we are better served by incorporating the best of what grows in Oregon and fusing it with Middle Eastern flavors?”

Sam is no stranger to Middle Eastern cooking. After graduating from The Restaurant School in Philadelphia, Sam worked his way to sous chef under Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia’s Zahav, one of the country’s preeminent modern-Israeli restaurants. To prep the team, Michael took them to Israel to experience the culture, people, and food firsthand. “For two weeks, we ate our way through the country, between four to six meals a day,” recounts Sam. “By the third day, I recall waking up at six o’clock, uncomfortably full from the night before, about to eat three different breakfasts that morning. We literally crammed in as much as possible.”

Israel food is typically served family-style. “Once you clear your plate, people immediately provide a second serving,” says Sam. “This hospitality overlaps with my motivation as a chef. We design dishes at Tusk for people to commune with friends over food that includes mostly vegetables and a small amount of meat.”

Why vegetables? “The Willamette Valley has some of the best farmers,” says Sam. “And great farmers make great produce.

“When you taste something as simple as cabbage that has been grown with great care, it can taste spicy, sweet, and crunchy all at once,” Sam continues. “You realize you didn’t know how much you care about cabbage until that moment. When you have something infinitely better than the version of the thing you’ve eaten your entire life, you have a gut-check moment and think, ‘Holy shit, what else tastes better than everything I’ve eaten my entire life?’”

The relationship between farmers and chefs is an important one. Sam doesn’t buy what farmers are already growing – he partners with farmers to get exactly what he wants. That means farmers can focus less on maximizing the amount of produce they can sell and more on creating the flavors chefs want. The result­? Locally sourced produce, committed buyers, and delicious food.

One example of this kind of exchange between chef and farmer unfolded over a dish called Kibbe Naya, a traditional Levantine recipe popular in Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq. It is served with raw ground lamb mixed with bulgur wheat. For a local twist, Sam turned to Ayers Creek Farm in the Willamette Valley.

Here, farmer and owner Anthony Boutard grows and prepares freekeh, a green durum wheat. While the wheat is still immature, Anthony harvests it and burns off the straw and chaff, using a blowtorch, to give the kernels a rich, smoky flavor. Sam’s staff went to Anthony’s farm to see the process firsthand. “Anthony encouraged us to substitute bulgur wheat with freekeh in the dish. If Anthony tells you to do something,” laughs Sam, “you do it.”

Sam experimented with different variations of the raw lamb, freekeh, olive oil, herbs, and lemon juice. Compared to the traditional dish, Sam’s version also calls for less meat. He tried equal parts apples, chilies, celery root, turnips, and radishes with the freekeh and lamb. To complement the lemon juice, Sam mixes yogurt with turmeric, cumin, and black pepper – a spice trio typically found in curry chicken soup. For texture, Sam makes vegetable chips from parsnips, carrots, beets, potatoes, and sunchokes. Add little gem leaves, and the result is an array of flavor and texture: the crispiness of chips, the refreshing crunch from lettuce, and the rich yogurt mixture balanced by the chewy freekeh and savory lamb.

“When chefs come in, they order this dish. So do the farmers,” says Sam, with a smile. “It’s all about texture and variations of texture within the same dish.”

Sam recommends pairing a gin and tonic with the kibbe naya.


2448 East Burnside Street
503-894-8082 | tuskpdx.com

Kibbe Naya

Serves 4–6 | Active cooking time 30 minutes

This dish is inspired by a traditional Lebanese recipe that mixes raw lamb with bulgur wheat, often served with lettuce cups and raw onion petals. Tusk restaurant uses freekeh in this recipe, which can be difficult to come by. Feel free to use a different grain, such as bulgur wheat, rye berry, farro, or barley. The freekeh in this recipe should be precooked on the stove by adding water to cover by 1 inch with a sprig of thyme, a bay leaf and one clove of garlic crushed. Bring to a boil and then simmer for one hour.

To add texture, Tusk makes vegetable chips from parsnips, sunchokes, beets, and potatoes. A fancy alternative to homemade chips is a bag of Terra chips. Regular potato chips will also do.

Turmeric yogurt

If you can, double the recipe. This is a great dip for raw vegetables, a sauce for fried fish, or a dressing on a sandwich. The possibilities are endless.

2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 small garlic clove, minced or micro planed
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups thick Greek yogurt
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons olive oil

Mix the lemon juice, garlic, and salt together. The acid and salt will help mellow out and bloom the garlic flavor. Let it sit 5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and whisk until incorporated. The flavor of the cumin, black pepper, and turmeric should be strong. Set aside while you prepare the kibbe.

Kibbe Naya

6 ounces lamb leg, cleaned of fat and sinew, ground or hand chopped into small pieces
1/4 cup cooked freekeh (or wheat substitute, see above)
1/4 cup red onion, finely diced
1/4 cup fennel, finely diced
1/4 cup radish, finely diced
1/4 cup mint, picked and roughly torn
1/4 cup parsley, picked and roughly torn
2–3 heads little gem lettuces
1 small onion, red or yellow, cut into quarters and separated into petals
2 lemons, cut into wedges, seeds removed
Jacobsen sea salt to taste

Mix lamb with olive oil, wheat, red onion, fennel, radish, and herbs. Add a big pinch of salt, like Jacobsen or Maldon, which adds a nice crunch and a mineral flavor you do not get from kosher salt. If neither are available, kosher salt will work great.

Place vegetable chips, turmeric yogurt, and kibbe naya in separate bowls. Garnish with individual gem lettuce leaves, quartered onion slices, and lemon wedges. Enjoy!

West Coast photojournalist Matt Mornick specializes in photographing food, people, and travel. His portfolio is available at mornick.com.

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