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Rose Previte, of D.C.'s Michelin star restaurant Maydān, releases her debut cookbook

Rose Previte's stuffed summer squash with lamb and rice, from her new cookbook, <em>Maydān: Recipes from Lebanon and Beyond</em>.
Elissa Nadworny
/
NPR
Rose Previte's stuffed summer squash with lamb and rice, from her new cookbook, Maydān: Recipes from Lebanon and Beyond.

It's early morning and Rose Previte's D.C. restaurant is still dark. There are a few ingredients on the prep table: summer squash, a can of whole tomatoes, an onion, ground lamb, rice, mint, cinnamon, and good Lebanese olive oil.

"We are going to make one of my all-time favorite comfort foods," says Previte. "Koosa."

It's a recipe from her debut cookbook, Maydān: Recipes from Lebanon and Beyond.

Maydān also happens to be the name of the restaurant she's currently standing in — it's a word that holds a lot of meaning for Previte. "I learned it in Kyiv," she explains. "Everyone kept saying... 'Meet at maydan, meet at maydan,' and I was like, 'What is this?' " So she looked into it. It's a word that exists in Arabic, Hindi, and Farsi and means: a gathering place.

"Somewhere that people came together in all these different countries from Iran, to Ukraine, to Georgia," Previte says, "to either celebrate, to mourn, to rebel."

And that's what she wants to do with her food — bring people together around a table.

Maydān: Recipes from Lebanon and Beyond isn't a restaurant cookbook, though some of the hit dishes from her restaurants — she has four in the D.C. area and is opening another in Los Angeles — have been adapted for the home cook and are included. But a lot of the recipes are family dishes, from food that Previte grew up eating in her Lebanese/Italian/American home in Ohio, and food she ate in home kitchens all around the world.

"I try not to credit a country," Previte says. The recipes in this cookbook tie in the flavors of a wide region — from the Caucuses to the Middle East and North Africa. So instead of calling it "pita," or "naan," Previte uses, simply, "flatbread." She says she's not trying to wade into the fight over which country "owns," as another example, hummus.

"I try to just tell you the story of how I learned it and where I learned it."

The recipe she's preparing to make today is one she learned from her mom. Koosa is squash stuffed with ground lamb and rice and cooked in a bath of fragrant, spiced tomato sauce. It's a dish her family eats every year at Christmas.

Previte starts by coring the squash using a paring knife. "This is my grandma way of doing it," she says. "I'm just literally using the knife to scrape off the insides."

Previte's mother catered Lebanese food from their house and her father sold Italian sausage sandwiches at street fairs and festivals on the weekends. "It was food all the time, every day," says Previte.
/ Elissa Nadworny/NPR
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Elissa Nadworny/NPR
Previte's mother catered Lebanese food from their house and her father sold Italian sausage sandwiches at street fairs and festivals on the weekends. "It was food all the time, every day," says Previte.

Previte grew up in a small town in Ohio — 3,000 people, three stoplights. On her mom's side, her family hails from Lebanon. On her dad's, Sicily. Both her parents were born and raised in the United States, as were Previte and her siblings.

"I think [my parents] quickly realized that if they didn't overcompensate on culture, we were going to lose it," Previte says. "Language was already lost." So they went "overboard" on the food. Her mom started catering Lebanese food out of the house — she even opened a restaurant in her 60s. Previte's lawyer/professor dad sold Italian sausage sandwiches at street fairs and festivals on the weekends.

"It was food all the time, every day."

Previte sets aside the squash innards — which, she explains, do not have to be wasted and would be good mixed with eggs for breakfast — and begins to chop an onion. Despite her upbringing, Previte did not always know she wanted to work around food. She got her graduate degree in public policy, and interned at Human Rights Watch. Then she married her husband, former NPR Morning Edition host David Greene, and plans changed.

"David came home and said, 'Oh, my dream job to be a foreign correspondent is happening. We just have to live in Russia.' " So Previte quit her job — by then she was working for the New York City Council — and followed Greene to Russia, where she did not have a job.

"So I kind of just started tagging along," she says. She and Greene ended up traveling to 30 countries in about three years — all around the Middle East and North Africa. She fell the hardest for the Republic of Georgia — and its food.

At one memorable hours-long dinner, she writes in her cookbook, they ate "pork skewers called mtsvadi; khinkali, piping hot meat dumplings; platters of fresh herbs and pickled vegetables, including jonjoli, the super sour pickled flowers that are a staple of the Georgian pantry; plus the eggplant rolls, badrijani nigvzit, and chicken in creamy satsivi sauce."

Rose Previte got many of the recipes and techniques in this book from home cooks, often grandmothers, around the world.
/ Elissa Nadworny/NPR
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Elissa Nadworny/NPR
Rose Previte got many of the recipes and techniques in this book from home cooks, often grandmothers, around the world.

But her three years in Moscow were dark — sometimes literally, like when it was already pitch black outside at 4 p.m. — but also emotionally. "I was starting to feel more worthless," like she'd accidentally turned into a 30-something housewife without having meant to, Previte explains.

"I was feeling very lost when David and I took the Trans-Siberian Railway for 3 1/2 weeks across Russia." The plan was to ride the full route from Moscow to Vladivostok, nearly 6,000 miles away. It was cold, it was dark, and the food on the train was terrible. There was endless time to think.

"What I ended up really thinking about was what I really wanted to do," says Previte. That's when she finally admitted to herself that she'd always loved working with food — she'd worked in bars and restaurants, and helped cater with her mom throughout her life.

"Making food, serving food, making people feel at home, comfortable and cared for — that was my dream assignment," Previte writes in her cookbook.

Back at the prep table, the onions for the koosa get sautéed in a giant pot, and Previte starts to mix the lamb with the rice and the cinnamon. "This was a big debate with the family," Previte says. "Does the cinnamon go in the meat or in the tomatoes?"

Rose Previte says the tomatoes used in her recipe for koosa should be crushed by hand.
/ Elissa Nadworny/NPR
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Elissa Nadworny/NPR
Rose Previte says the tomatoes used in her recipe for koosa should be crushed by hand.

Even though Previte grew up cooking this dish with her family — and still does to this day — the recipe was never written down anywhere. And the process of getting it included in this book, she says, was "laborious."

"They have never used measuring spoons," she explains of the cooks in her family.

Finally, last winter, Previte got her whole family in one room. She thought, this is the time. But — "By the time I walk in the house, my sister-in-law is like, 'What have you done?' " Previte remembers. "They started fighting ... about how my grandmother did it and one was saying, 'Oh, I made this with her more than you did, and I know that we do it this way.' " No one agreed about the cinnamon.

Relationships have been mended and everyone is speaking again, but it was "brutal," Previte laughs.

To the pot of sautéing onions, Previte adds a can of whole tomatoes. "We're gonna break them down just by hand," she explains. Another grandma method. "You could technically put them in a blender but we just gonna do it by hand."

Before she opened Maydān in 2017, Previte and her chefs went on a research and development trip: Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Georgia and Turkey. "It's the only way you're going to learn," she says, "because this food for me is like soul food and it's based on feelings and memory and culture."

It was important to her, she says, to not just visit restaurants — restaurants typically are where men work and Previte wanted to learn from the women. "So many women don't work, are not permitted to work," she explains. "All this food is being produced for these large families out of their homes and never shared with anybody but other relatives."

So she found home cooks to let her team into their kitchens. "It was so cool to be allowed into their traditions and their family secrets and their stories that were inevitably told in the teaching of a dish," Previte says.

Previte cooks stuffed squash at her restaurant, Maydān, in Washington, D.C.
/ Elissa Nadworny/NPR
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Elissa Nadworny/NPR
Previte cooks stuffed squash at her restaurant, Maydān, in Washington, D.C.

Once the lamb is mixed with the rice, it's time to stuff it into the hollowed out squash. "You just push it down with your finger, OK?" Previte demonstrates. "There's no other way to do this." In Previte's kitchen, you have to get your hands dirty.

Then the stuffed squash go into the pot with the tomato and onion, where it bubbles away until it's cooked.

Maydān: Recipes from Lebanon and Beyond was published shortly after Oct. 7, when the region that Previte loves so much was, once again, in turmoil: Hamas militants attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people. Israel declared war. Today, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza, the Israeli bombardment and ground offensive has killed more than 15,000 Palestinians.

Rose Previte says it's been a really hard time to release this cookbook. She's acutely aware that many people in the region don't have access to the food she's writing about.

"I would have loved to go to Yemen," she says. "But speaking of food insecurity, what an amazingly rich food culture they have that ... they themselves are starving."

It feels small, Previte says, but she hopes this cookbook has a message for readers.

"I wanted to teach people here the hospitality that we were given all over this region — I mean, in places that Americans thought we were crazy to go to because they only associate it with war — we were welcomed into homes."

She wants people to think of the people behind the conflicts.

"They're so human and they're trying to do the same thing we're doing here every day," she says. "Which is just feed our families and keep them safe."

Rose Previte hopes the food in her debut cookbook brings people together around a table.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR
/
NPR
Rose Previte hopes the food in her debut cookbook brings people together around a table.

Koosa

Stuffed Summer Squash with Lamb and Rice

SERVES 6-8

12 to 18 green summer squash (koosa), each approximately 5 inches (12 cm) long

2 pounds (910 g) coarsely ground lamb (optional)

1 cup (185 g) uncooked white rice, such as Ben's Original, or a medium-grain rice such as Arborio or Egyptian (use 3 cups / 555 g if omitting the lamb)

1/4 cup (1/2 stick / 115 g) unsalted butter, melted

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil, preferably Lebanese unfiltered, or vegetable oil

1 medium onion, diced or thinly sliced

1 can (28 ounces / 794 g) whole peeled tomatoes

Handful of fresh spearmint leaves or 1/3 cup (12 g) dried mint

DIRECTIONS

1. To prepare the koosa for stuffing, wash them gently with a vegetable brush. Working with 1 koosa at a time, slice off the stem. Using a zucchini corer or butter (table) knife, scoop out the flesh, leaving a 1/4-inch-thick (6 mm) shell, taking care not to poke through the skin. Rinse to make sure that all the loose particles are out. Continue with all of the koosa.

2. In a large bowl, place the lamb, if using, rice, melted butter, cinnamon, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Use your hands to mix until well combined.

3. Stuff the lamb mixture into each koosa: make sure to push the filling all the way to the bottom of the hole you scooped out, do not pack too tightly to leave room for the rice to expand. If there is any filling left over, use it to stuff whatever else you can find in your crisper drawer — mushroom caps, bell peppers, eggplant, almost anything can be stuffed — or, if there is meat in the filling, roll it into little meatballs to cook in the pot with the koosa, or reserve them for another use.

4. In an 8- to 10-quart (7.5 to 9.4 liter) pot, heat the oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and pepper and cook until softened and translucent, about 8 minutes.

5. Add the tomatoes to the pan, breaking them up with your hands as you add them if necessary. Pour a little water in the can or jar and swish it around, then add it to the pot. Add the mint and the remaining teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes to let the flavors meld.

6. Put the stuffed koosa and any extra meatballs in the pan with the tomatoes. Add enough water to cover the koosa. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat. Cover the pan and cook at a gentle boil until the rice is cooked and the koosa are tender, 45 to 50 minutes.

7. Serve the koosa with the tomato broth spooned over.

Recipe reprinted from the new book Maydān: Recipes from Lebanon and Beyond.

This story was edited by Samantha Balaban. The audio was produced by Hiba Ahmad. Photography and photo editing by Elissa Nadworny.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Samantha Balaban is a producer at Weekend Edition.
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