Labor Day weekend shines as summer’s final note of fun and frolic. And in this area, few events hold as much appeal to the general public as the Middle Eastern Food Festival. It’s food, food, food ... and more food. Plus folk dancing, music, church tours and, well, food.
Held at McLean’s Holy Transfiguration Melkite Greek-Catholic Church, the food festival also promises visitors a chance to learn how to prepare some Middle Eastern dishes. Leading these demonstrations is parishioner Nikki Haddad.
Of Lebanese descent, a native of Michigan and currently living in Maryland, Haddad explains that food and its preparation always have been intricately intertwined with all her family activities. “My interest in food has such ties to my life,” she said. “All Lebanese are connected to food, whether they are happy or sad or celebrating. We always have food memories.”
And no wonder. Just consider what comprised a typical family meal in her household: “We had lots of rice and vegetable stews served over rice,” she said. “And traditionally we served kabobs, which are a big part of the meal, and homemade pita sandwiches with homemade yogurt, yogurt cheese (lebneh), and yogurt made into hot and cold soups.” Even now Haddad says she makes about 2 gallons of yogurt a week for her family.
Haddad’s participation in the kitchen began very early, starting when she was just 5 years old, with the simple task of stuffing and rolling grape leaves. “I also made meat and spinach pies, and baklava,” she said.
With such an early start — it turns out her father owned a small coffee shop as well — and with a growing culinary passion, the adult Haddad converted her food skills into a profession by becoming a personal chef. “I love to feed people, I love to eat, and to experiment with what Mother Nature gives us,” she said, adding that she focuses on healthful Mediterranean foods. “So I began cooking for others to spread love and healthfulness.”
When she moved to Maryland, Haddad enrolled in Gaithersburg’s L’Academie de Cuisine’s personal chef seminar. After its completion, she started working at Suburban Hospital, holding monthly classes and going into the community to give healthy-cooking demonstrations. In addition, she has held seminars about healthy cooking and preparing home-based meals.
Prior to the food festival, Haddad and ladies from the parish have been busy baking multiple pastries and cookies, including baklava in many different shapes. “I’m honestly not a huge baker,” she said. “Baking is a science, and I don’t like to follow recipes. And with baking, measurements must be exact. I am the type of cook who likes to just add a pinch of this and that, not really follow recipes. So it's been a real journey and learning experience to bake with the ladies. ... I personally make sesame cookies, called barazek. I am making 10 or 12 dozen for the church to sell. My recipe uses about 8 to 12 cups of rendered butter.”
During the festival, Haddad’s cooking demonstrations will continue throughout Saturday, with recipes she has gathered from a family cookbook she has compiled. “I started putting the recipes together and some were sent to me in Arabic or Lebanese, and it took a lot of time to go back through and rewrite and compile them,” she said, adding that they come from all over the Middle East. Haddad said the book, “T’faddalouh ... Welcome to our Table,” will be available at $30 a copy, with proceeds going to the church.