Monday, January 31, 2011

A Hookah and Cheese Party

My neighbor David hosted a hookah party on Saturday night. Of course I offered to bring cheese. I knew it would be the perfect excuse to explore the Middle Eastern grocery, Jerusalem, that I walk past every day on Girard Avenue – I ogle the dairy case whenever I buy dates.

One cheese in the cooler has always intrigued me, Labne. This traditional soft cheese is often compared to sour cream, but it’s “kefir cheese” – made by straining kefir, a form of cultured milk not unlike yogurt. I buy Lifeway kefir at the grocery all the time because it’s velvet for the G.I. track. It’s also delicious.

And so I began dreaming. Labne. Honey. Rosewater. Orange zest. Yes, a hookah cheese platter was coming together.

Next, I scoped out a tub of Bulgarian feta, my favorite style of brined cheese. I pictured a layer of hummus covered with a rough’n tumble mix of artichoke hearts, garbanzos, olives, feta, and cilantro.

The dates at Jerusalem were still on the stem. I had to have them. Pack them with a little Stilton, and they would be royal slippers.

I ran home to assemble. In a few hours, a 3-course cheese tasting was ready. All I needed was a pair of bellydance cymbals to ring between bites, but alas, Madame Fromage does not have those.

The party was cozy and warm. Our host greeted us in his fez and held out a pitcher of rose water to wash our hands. We used flat bread to scoop at the two cheese platters and admired David’s collection of electric ashtrays, which glow.

After perfumed lamb, after roasted pumpkin and rice, the hookahs came out. It was a perfect accompaniment to sweet meats and stuffed dates. Who says cheese doesn’t pair with rose tobacco?

Labne with Rose Water and Tangerine Zest

1 carton labne
Buckwheat honey
Tangerine zest
Crushed sesame coated cashews (Trader Joe’s)
Chopped apricots

This recipe is quick to assemble and absolutely delicious. Once you’ve got the ingredients, you can add as much of each item as you like. Just don’t overdo the rose water. A few drops (6-8) is about perfect; otherwise this dish might taste like bathwater.


Feta Salad

This is essentially a 3-layer dip. You spread hummus around the bottom of a bowl, top it with a marinated artichoke and garbanzo salad, then crumble feta over it and plenty of olive oil. 

1 can garbanzos, rinsed
1 small jar artichoke hearts marinated in oil
1 container plain Sabra hummus, or homemade
olive oil for drizzling
1 heaping teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted
3 scallions, chopped
¼ cup green olives, roughly chopped
3 Tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar or lemon juice
1 teaspoon Red pepper flakes
1 block Bulgarian feta or 1 ½ cup crumbled
Sea salt
Ground black pepper
Zatar or ground sumac (optional)

Toast cumin in a dry skillet until seeds darken in color and a few begin popping. Then, remove from heat and toss with rinsed garbanzos, drained artichoke hearts, scallions, olives, red pepper flakes, and cilantro.

Drizzle mixture with olive oil, about 3 tablespoons, and add red wine vinegar. Stir and add salt and pepper. Make any adjustments – more lemon, more red pepper flakes, etc.

Use a spoon to spread hummus across the bottom of a shallow bowl or high-lipped plate. Spoon salad over it evenly, allowing edges of hummus to show. Tip with crumbled feta, zatar, and a final drizzle of olive oil.

Serve with pita.


  1. My Syrian grandmother use to make her own labne. You brought back so many yummy memories!

  2. What a cool idea for a party and way to go with the fabulous cheese course! Everything sounds amazing - I am inspired to try all the delicious flavors - YUM:)

  3. I just want to say that those sesame cashews are incredible. I am now craving crumbly cheese. Maybe some feta for Mike and some polish farmer's cheese for me. I'm also going to have to look into this labne.

  4. Man I want someone to import this. Or better yet, make a version in the US.

    R-L Morillo

  5. Thanks for posting the comment, Rich. I would love to try Shanklish -- this is a great link.

  6. What a fun themed party... and great additions on your part! I'd love to try them all.