Za’atar Fried Chicken and my cookbook photo shoot

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Chicken and donuts, Maureen AboodWhen I take photos for Rose Water and Orange Blossoms, there are so many things to consider: the light, the lens, the plate, the background surface and the backdrop. And of course, the food itself. I run around the kitchen and down the stairs to get it all together, then hope the sun doesn’t fall to a place where its light through the window becomes too bright or too dim, and all is lost until tomorrow…when the food may no longer be photo-ready.

Last week, I witnessed all of this action on a grand scale in the studio of photographer Jason Varney in Philadelphia. Jason and a crew of artistic wizards cooked, styled, propped, directed, and photographed more than 60 photos for Rose Water and Orange Blossoms, the cookbook (to be released spring 2015 by Running Press). I end that sentence with a period, but every sentence in this post, and every sentence I write about the book, should really be punctuated with a whole slew of exclamation points, for how excited I am to see this book coming to life!

Cover sketch, Maureen Abood

Ingredients, Maureen Abood

Props, Maureen AboodThe experience is…surreal?…watching such talented pros go at my recipes to show them off in all of their beautiful glory.

The styling process is much as you might imagine it to be: the food is glossed and dusted and tweezered to be sure the mint lays just so or the spoon looks naturally well-used after a dip in the mujadara.

Photo shoot, Maureen Abood

Skewer torch, Maureen Abood

Tomato salad, Maureen AboodOf course, I didn’t mind hearing all of them rave about the Lebanese deliciousness every time they tasted it (the fig and the apricot jams were a hit, and a crazy-good cake with warm orange blossom caramel too; can’t wait to share that one in the book), and I’ve been bragging all week back home about how they raved about this and they raved about that, in true Aunt Hilda-style. My Aunt Hilda basked in the light of every awe-struck eater of her food, and she taught me to appreciate the same.

I was happy to realize that just like a writer in her kitchen and at her desk Up North in Michigan, photographers and stylists and art directors get pretty hungry doing their work. And Philadelphia, my friends, delivered. The wrap meal Jason hosted at Zahav, an Isreali gem of a favorite in the city, put me over the top with a line-up that’ll make you weep, including an outrageously smooth hummus and a lacquered roasted lamb that silenced the table. This was an epic feast, as Jason said. Almost as SICK as the photo he took of our lifft, our pink pickled turnips. That one was so SICK, he said it might just be the sexiest, best photo he’d taken all year. Which is saying a lot, because it seems to me every photo Jason takes is the best photo ever, with light and composition and that special something  that comes from great artists. So that makes me very SICK happy, dude!

Lift, Maureen Abood

Screen shot, Maureen AboodThe final day of the shoot was rescued from my own melancholy at leaving, at the thing being finished, by the lunch Jason ordered. He and our art director Josh had been talking about it all week, za’atar chicken that comes with a side (or a box, as the case may be) of the best donuts you can eat. That’s a fantasia of flavor that I couldn’t stop devouring, even after vowing the night before, after our epic feast, never to eat again.

I flaunted the za’atar chicken and donuts all over my Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter worlds (join me there!), and shot texts to the family left and right. It didn’t take long after I got home to serve up a plate of my own version of za’atar fried chicken, albeit without the donuts this time. I use a lot more za’atar than Federal Donuts does, to get even more of that za’atar-lovin’ flavor. The result is nothing short of all that we want from our fresh and classic Lebanese recipes, and all that is promised to deliver from my cookbook: superb…stupendous…and seriously sick.

Maureen, Maureen Abood

My zaatar chicken, Maureen Abood

Za’atar Oven-Fried Chicken
If you want to really go crazy here, fry a batch of Lebanese donuts to eat along with your chicken… For the chicken, click over to my Mom’s recipe for oven-fried chicken, and simply rock it out with a heavy dusting of za’atar when it comes out of the oven. You could also add some za’atar to the dredging flour mix, a tablespoon or so. I also added a pinch of cayenne to the mix.

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  1. Debbie george says:

    Would love to know how some people get the hummus so silky smooth?
    Thank you

    1. Maureen Abood says:

      Ohhh Debbie, you’ve hit on something special! I write a lot about this in my cookbook! The key is peeled chickpeas. You can do it yourself or get them already peeled at the Maureen Abood Market–click here!

  2. Sue Bousaba says:

    Maureen – Loved this post! I’ve been reading your blog for a few years, it’s my go-to when looking for inspiration or attempting to recreate my mother’s and aunts’ Lebanese recipes. Living hours from my [very Lebanese] parents in North Carolina, its always comforting to read your stories, memories and recipes.

    I live in Philadelphia, just a few blocks from Federal Doughnuts on Spruce St. It was such a pleasant surprise to see you writing about some of my favorite local places. Glad you enjoyed the Philly food scene & had a successful shoot. Looking forward to buying the book!

  3. Kevin | keviniscooking says:

    Maureen, thanks for sharing your experiences and insight with this behind the scenes post. How exciting indeed, I would be over the MOON! Congratulations and I look forward to your book as well as trying this Za’atar Oven-Fried Chicken!

  4. Rina says:

    This is so exciting I can’t stand it!!!!! You’re doing it my Maurini!!! I can’t WAIT for the book to come out!!!!! Everything looks UH-MAZING!!!! Congratulations my love!!!

  5. Taste of Beirut says:

    Congratulations! I empathize with you about the amount of work it takes just to get a good food shot–but it is all worth it in the end because we love what we do! Looking forward to your cookbook.

    1. Maureen Abood says:

      Many thanks Joumana! We sure do love what we do!

  6. Cheryl says:

    This is so, so exciting, Maureen. Brava!

    Tara recommended that my family eat at Zahav when we visited Philly in July for my cousin’s wedding. We had a spectacular meal there, including the hummus and the lacquered lamb that you also enjoyed. That place is indeed SICK!

    Congrats on everything, friend. I share in your anticipation of your spectacular book-to-be.

    1. Maureen Abood says:

      Cheryl! Thanks so much and how great to know you had a fabulous meal at Zahav too!! Can’t WAIT for your wonderful book too!

  7. Jody Atty says:

    So excited…happy for you, so deserved!
    REALLY looking forward to the book!
    I agree with cousin Diane Nassir…anxious to try za’atar chicken & planning to order several copies of your book!!!

  8. Diane Nassir (my maternal grandmother was an Abowd from Ammun, Leb.) says:

    Love love love the chicken za’atar recipe and love the dishes–the photography does your food justice–we are equally excited about your book–print a few extra because I am buying multiple copies to give to my family!

  9. Tom says:

    How fun to get a look behind the scenes. Always the one to remain a man of mystery, Tom Wright never let me know how he worked his magic with a camera.I just knew it involved long motorcycle trips and high-priced cigars.

    Eagerly awaiting the book.

  10. Jerry Wakeen says:

    After hundreds of “how to do it” photos you finally release one that is “don’t do it this way”. I am writing about the fellow standing on the very top of the ladder, hopefully that was not your new husband, nor a photographer that you will be using again soon. I am so afraid of heights I have no problem obeying the sign that is universally placed near the top of those ladders, generally saying “do not step on anything above this step”. 🙂

    As for za’atar and donuts, I will have to read it all again, I don’t think you put za’atar on or in the donuts.
    Will show my wife the oven baked chicken and za’atar, that is a new twist and I have a large container of the za’atar mix that will outlive me unless we start using it in larger quantities.

    Keep up the good work, looking forward to your new book, hopefully it will settle differences I have with my wife over my Lebanese cooking preferences, (rosewater, wild grapevines, fewer pine nuts, home made hummus, less filling in the grape leaf rolls, spices in hushwe, etc.). She believes what she reads not what I tell her.

    Hope all is well.
    best, Jerry Wakeen

  11. Michelle Barrett says:

    As a foodie with over 700 cookbooks, I’m so excited that you have a book coming out. I love reading your posts and trying new different recipes. You never disappoint. Congratulations!!!!