Text and photos by MARITES N. SISON
Mohamad Alnajjar, co-proprietor of Alia’s Catering, was going to show me how to make rice pudding, which his wife, journalist Leigh Anne Williams, swears is the best one ever.
But Lebanese-Canadian hospitality is such that when I visit their home one Saturday afternoon, the couple inform me that I would not only learn how to make rice pudding the Alnajjar family way, but there would be dinner as well. How could one argue, especially when one catches a whiff of the shish tawook (Lebanese marinated chicken skewers) that’s been marinating in the kitchen?
Alnajjar is an accidental cook. He says his mother, who lives in Lebanon, can hardly believe that her youngest son can cook and do so with flourish. When she saw photographs of artfully prepared dishes that Alnajjar had made and shared on Facebook, she gasped, “Really, my son, who can’t even make his own coffee for breakfast?”
“I only learned how to cook when I met Leigh Anne,” Alnajjar says breaking into a smile. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” adds Williams, explaining that her husband began preparing dinner when he became a stay-at-home dad to their three-year-old daughter, Alia. [Lovely, smart and headstrong Alia is clearly at home in the kitchen, she insists on helping her Baba (father in Arabic) and Mama by pulling the string on the lettuce dryer, something she learned from her maternal grandfather, who lives in Edmonton.]
Williams adds that Alnajjar discovered that he not only had a knack for recreating his mother’ recipes, but that the kitchen was his domain. He can also clearly multi-task: while the rice pudding is bubbling, he prepares the kabobs and side dishes and occasionally sneaks a peek at the Leafs-Habs game on TV. He’s become addicted to hockey ever since his friend’s cousin, Lebanese-Canadian Nazem Kadri, got drafted to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
We sit down for the lovely meal that Alnajjar has prepared: shisk tawook, frites with crushed garlic, Williams’s own recipe of grapefruit, avocado and lettuce salad, grilled garlic and tomatoes, roasted cashews and greens with sumac). I had to remind myself to leave room for the rice pudding.
Also carefully laid out are foods which Williams explains are typically served in a typical Lebanese meze: makdous (pickled stuffed eggplant in olive oil), baba ghanouj, hummus and olives. They’re equally scrumptious. The makdous and olives are from Alnajjar’s friends in Ottawa. I notice a big jug of olive oil in the kitchen – also gifts from his friends. I remember what I had been told once before, that the gift of a much-prized olive oil is a reliable indicator of how a friendship is valued.
Rice pudding was the first thing Alnajjar learned how to cook. It is his favourite dish and when he moved to Toronto, he had no choice but to cook it himself. When he introduced the dish to his wife and in-laws, they were similarly hooked. Williams is right, it is the best rice pudding ever. The consistency is perfect – not too thick but not runny either – and it is simply a melt-in-your-mouth delectable goodness. Alia prefers to eat hers plain, but I chose to have it Lebanese style, with raisins, crushed pistachio and a sprinkle of cinnamon. I had to stop myself from licking the bowl.
The key is to cooking a perfect rice pudding is to keep the temperature at medium and to keep stirring the pot at a medium-steady rhythm so that the rice doesn’t stick to the pan, says Alnajjar. When he adds the orange blossom water, I recognize it as that distinct and delicate scent I’ve become accustomed to from eating far too many Lebanese desserts like baklava. I am delighted to hear that it is readily available at Akram Shoppe on Kensington Market and other Middle Eastern stores. Yes, I know, from my lips to my hips. But this rice pudding is worth it.
Lebanese rice pudding
2 cups short grain rice (Calrose is ideal for puddings)
3 litres of 2% milk
1 cup of white sugar
Orange blossom water (one or two cap-fulls to taste)
1 tsp. corn starch
1. Rinse rice thoroughly in a sieve until the water runs clear.
2. Add to two cups of water in a large pot on the stove and cook over medium heat until the water is almost all absorbed.
3. Then add the milk and cook over medium heat, stirring slowly but constantly. In a small cup, combine one tsp. of corn starch with a bit of the hot milk from the pot, mix thoroughly and stir back into the pudding.
4. Add the orange blossom water. Once the milk thickens, add the sugar and continue stirring for a few minutes more, then remove from heat.
5. Sprinkle cinnamon or crushed pistachios to top before serving.