Like most Lebanese cooks, Annie Denny Lehrer learned to make the recipes of her ancestral homeland from her mother and grandmother. And like most Lebanese cooks, the older women almost never wrote anything down.
“There were never a lot of specific measurements,” Lehrer says.
Luckily for seekers of cooking know-how, Lehrer — a nurse practitioner by trade — decided to teach cooking classes in her extremely limited spare time, and in the process, she quantified the volume of her grandmother’s favorite spoon, which is still an indispensable metric in her mother’s kitchen.
The woman she knew as her grandmother was actually her great aunt, Agnes Timmons, who had cared for Lehrer’s mother after her mother’s parents died. Timmons and her sisters, Mary Koram and Loretta McDermott, operated the old Three Sisters Cafe, first at Ninth and Howard streets and then at Tyler Street and North Broadway. The restaurant closed in 1978. Timmons died in 2010 at age 100.
“All they ever did was cook and go to church,” Lehrer says of the trio’s working days. “When they stopped, they just started cooking for everyone else.”
That included the throngs at the Cedars banquet hall at St. Raymond’s Maronite Catholic Church, where the sisters volunteered.
As an introduction to Lebanese cooking at home, Lehrer chose four recipes: Tabouli, Kibbe Synee, Rolled Grape Leaves and Laban.
It’s possible you’ve seen all of these dishes spelled differently; Lehrer says that the names and transliterations often have regional variations.
“Where my ancestors come from, they have a very different dialect,” she says. “For example, instead of kibbe, they call it kubbe.”
Tabouli is a refreshing parsley salad that easily stands alone. Lehrer says it also pairs well with the kibbe by cutting the richness of the meat.
“Lots of people in St. Louis know about kibbe because it’s served on Wednesdays at St. Raymond’s,” Lehrer says. “They serve it raw there, but they also make it into a football shape.”
Rolled (stuffed) grape leaves appear in many Middle Eastern cuisines. Lehrer says there are even variations in the way Lebanese cooks prepare them.
“Some like them super-thin, like a cigarette, and some like them thicker,” Lehrer says.
“This isn’t some grapevine that yields grapes,” Lehrer adds. “It’s a special plant.” (And if you’re really lucky, you have it growing in your yard.)
Laban is similar to both yogurt and farmers cheeses. Lehrer serves it, among other ways, with the grape leaves, but also likes it in a nontraditional way: on bread with preserves.
“It’s definitely not a Lebanese thing, but I love it,” she says.
And although Lehrer’s updated recipes call for modern conveniences such as blenders, one of her family’s most cherished heirlooms is their jorn and mudaqqa, brought over from Lebanon. It’s a piece of stone taking up about a cubic foot that’s hollowed out so various foods can be pounded, ground or mashed with the wooden mudaqqa (pestle).
“I can sometimes hardly believe that my mother and grandmother could even move this around,” Lehrer says.
As for other tips for preparing an authentic Lebanese meal at home, Lehrer offers the following:
• A meal will traditionally start with mezza — little snacks of nuts, olives and cheese.
• Almost all good Lebanese cooks have a mint patch growing somewhere near their kitchen, and some just let their yards be taken over, drying large volumes during summer for use the rest of the year.
• Lebanese homes will also have a grape leaf vine. When someone moves to a new home, a family member or friend transplants a vine to the new place.