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Enjoy a bite of Lebanese culture

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Custom calls for the Birthday Girl to select the restaurant, or at least the cuisine for her birthday celebration dinner. Last week's guest of honor, Barbara Brown, had selected a culinary adventure that went far beyond Great Food 101. It was no surprise that Barbara would choose an exotic cuisine; an inspiring English teacher at Portland's Lincoln High, she has a knack for making the ordinary seem just a little more tantalizing, whether you are talking about literature or food.

For her celebration, Barbara wanted a Middle Eastern culinary odyssey. The members in our group - Bonnie Trumbull, Melanie Breedlove, Joan Robbins and I -had all eaten Middle Eastern foods before, but this event definitely led us 'off the beaten path.' Barb's Middle Eastern meal was going to challenge us with a master's level curriculum. Our destination for the evening was Karam's Lebanese Restaurant in downtown Portland.

Middle Eastern cuisine is easier to define that the region that produces it. I consider Middle Eastern countries those that rest along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea: Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Egypt. You have to include Greece, the gatekeeper at the west end of the sea, and its neighbor Turkey, since they all share the key ingredients: garlic, eggplant, chickpeas, lemon, lamb and yogurt. Please note these same foods are in the cuisines of Iran and Iraq, but I plan to address those countries in January when Lake Oswego Reads discusses 'The Three Cups of Tea.'

We weren't savvy enough on the cuisine to order on our own, so our server expertly led us through the menu. She put together an aromatic feast which included dishes from the heartland of Lebanon: Taboule, hummus, dolmas, baba ghannouj, falafel, lamb kabobs and chicken shwarma. Entrees included a traditional dish called Molokhie with layers of pita bread, rice, molokhie, spinach, onions and seasoned lamb with a lemon juice sauce, chicken couscous and fatte, grilled lamb with layered baked pita, eggplant, garbanzo beans, yogurt and pine nuts.

During our dinner, owner Tony Karam came to answer our questions. Through the course of our conversation, he invited us to attend this weekend's Lebanese Food Festival.

The festival, to be held at Saint Sharbel Church in southeast Portland, will showcase authentic Lebanese cuisine, music and culture. Several restaurants including Al-Amir, Arabian Breeze, Barbur World Foods, Grolla, Habibi, Hoda's, Karam's Restaurant, Nicolas Restaurant, Riyadh's and Ya Hala will be offering their fare and the ladies of Saint Sharbel's parish have been baking traditional Lebanese pastries for weeks to sell at the festival.

Tony Karam is a deacon at Saint Sharbel Church, a small community of about 50 families. It was founded in 1970 as a Maronite Rite church.

Maronites are members of the Eastern Catholic Church, with a heritage reaching back to the early 5th century. Today, Maronites are one of the principle religious groups of Lebanon.

The festival is a way for the church to inform the metropolitan community about the Lebanese culture and the church.

Can eating foods of another culture make the world seem smaller? I believe it can. Each and everyday I look for opportunities to make the wide world seem a little more like my neighborhood. If serving pita with hummus instead of a pjb for lunch heightens awareness for those I feed, I am doing a small action to foster global understanding and world peace - with a simple meal.

Tony Karam will be working at Karam's booth at the festival on Sunday; I plan for my family to attend Sunday - join us!

This week's recipe is a tribute to two dear friends, Barbara Brown for her inquisitive nature and Susan Mansfield, newly retired office manager of the Review and Tidings. Both women appreciate a good adventure and are good neighbors in the world.

Bon Appetit - EatLocally!

Lebanese Style Tuna Salad with Tahini Dressing

Serves 8 to 10

For the dressing:

2 tablespoons tahini (sesame seed paste)

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 large clove garlic, minced and mashed to a paste with ½ teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste

1/3-cup olive oil

Four 6 ½ ounce cans tuna packed in oil, drained and flaked

2 pounds onions, sliced thin

1/3-cup vegetable oil

1/3-cup pine nuts

1 cup chopped fresh Italian (flat-leafed) parsley leaves, plus sprigs for garnish

6 to 8 pita loaves, quartered and opened into pockets

To make the dressing:

In a blender, blend together the tahini, lemon juice, garlic paste and the cayenne; with the motor running add the oil in a stream, blending until the dressing is emulsified, and season with salt.

To make the tuna salad:

In a bowl toss the tuna lightly with half the dressing and mound the mixture on a large platter. In a large heavy skillet cook the onions in the oil over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, for 50 minutes, or until they are golden brown, and season them with salt and pepper.

With a fork scatter the onions over the tuna. In the skillet cook the pine nuts over moderately low heat, stirring until they are golden and scatter them over the onions.

Drizzle the salad with the remaining dressing and sprinkle it with the chopped parsley. Garnish the salad with the parsley sprigs and serve it with the pita pockets.

Adapted from Gourmet 1990

Saint Sharbel Church is located at 1804 S.E. 16th Ave. The festival will run Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 18 and 19. For more information see the Web site at www.saintshar

bel.com.

Randall welcomes your food questions and research suggestions. She can be reached at 503-635-8811 or by e-mail at brandall@lakeoswego

review.com.