Friendswood family brings it all to the table
It’s all about family, friends and their shared Lebanese culture in Leslie and Jerome Karam’s Friendswood kitchen. From signature dishes bubbling away on the six-burner range, to a tray of appetizers cooling in the oversized stainless steel refrigerator, food and its preparation are central to the household’s personal and social lifestyles.
“As the mother of five, this is where I spend my life,” said Leslie Karam, as she positioned herself behind the kitchen’s restaurant-size cook station. But instead of facing the usual stovetop backsplash or wall, Karam is looking out toward the center of the room with an unobstructed view of all adjacent indoor spaces, plus the multi-acre backyard.
“When we remodeled this area — and it was a major undertaking that involved jackhammering the floor — I planned the kitchen so I could cook and still see the kids wherever they were — on the trampoline, in the pool or beyond,” she said. “I can see everything from here — everything.”
Although the couple’s three boys and two girls are growing up fast — all but one are now in college — the family unit is still all-important, and the sharing of meals and food preparation remains central to their lifestyle.
“As Lebanese parents, we believe that you raise a family at the table, amid love, laughter and great food,” she said, adding that everyone in the family is expected to help with culinary activities.
The Karams entertain frequently, and food is central to those occasions, when as many as 300 guests may show up to enjoy the family’s traditional favorites.
“The Lebanese are known for their hospitality,” she said. “It is part of our culture, and you cannot come into a Lebanese home without having something to eat.”
A former French teacher, Karam has applied her educational expertise to ensure that daughters Joann and Jordan are as fluent with traditional Lebanese food preparation and customs as she is. Jordan is even putting together a recipe book of Lebanese favorites so she can cook for college friends.
Friendswood attorney and developer Jerome Karam has similarly continued a tradition from his boyhood by teaming up with the couple’s sons — Jacob, Joshua and Justin — to man the twin bed-size grill outdoors.
Originally from Oakdale, La., Jerome Karam also is known for his crawfish-cooking expertise, and thanks to a specially fabricated multi-gallon cooker, has been known to turn out as many as 2,000 pounds of the succulent crustaceans for a single event.
Cooking indoors for large numbers has its own special demands, however, so the Karams’ spacious “old world” style kitchen has been carefully planned to accommodate preparation for a crowd. With high ceilings, recessed lighting, wrought-iron furnishings and rugged slate flooring, it features an abundance of counter and work spaces. Two widely separated sink-and-prep areas provide for additional traffic control around these much-frequented work stations.
The vintage charm of the kitchen and dining area is enhanced by wrought-iron furnishings and fixtures, and a display of crosses fills one wall. Original artwork includes a museum’s worth of colorful paintings by Jordan. And a series of black and white portraits done by Joann of her siblings takes center stage over the fireplace.
Leslie Karam’s secret to successfully cooking for a crowd is a sleek 12-by-4-foot island of polished dark granite that flows across the kitchen toward the back patio. Supported by massive, classically styled columns in antique green and surrounded by heavily carved wood bar chairs, it can do triple duty as a work area for food preparation, a serving area for food presentation and a dining area for food appreciation.
Leslie Karam designed the space just that way so everyone could join in on cooking, watching or just visiting, she said.
“It’s especially useful for group activities, such as the grape leaf rolling,” Karam said, noting that with enough people, as many as 400 of the tasty tidbits can be prepared in an hour.
Such expertise even garnered the Karam family a place on Tony Danza’s TV show in 2005.
“He was sponsoring a contest featuring recipes from overseas,” Leslie Karam said. “We submitted an audition segment we taped here at home, and wound up being invited to New York to appear on his show.”
A recipe for those prize stuffed grape leaf rolls follows here, but Karam offers the following caution:
“Because I cook more by instinct than by measuring, the amounts here are estimates,” she said. “It’s also difficult to say how many hungry mouths the following recipe will feed. Remember, I cook for a house full of boys, and some people eat grape leaf rolls like popcorn.”
Stuffed Grape Leaf Rolls
Servings: Makes 10 servings of 6 grape leaf rolls each
60 grape leaves
6 to 8 lamb chops,
depending on size
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground lamb
1 cup rice, uncooked
1 cup lemon juice
8 cups chicken broth
Salt and pepper to taste
Wash and blanch grape leaves; set aside to cool and air dry. Mix ground beef and ground lamb with uncooked rice; season meat and rice mixture with salt and pepper and combine lightly.
Lay individual grape leaves flat on a firm surface, placing them so the vein side is facing up. Place a teaspoon or so of the meat mixture on each leaf. Fold in sides lengthwise of leaf and roll each individual grape leaf like a jelly roll to encase stuffing. Note: Be sure all sides are closed and stuffing is completely enclosed.
Line the bottom of a deep, heavy pot with lamb chops. Layer rolled grape leaves on top. Combine chicken broth and lemon juice, and gently pour on top of rolled grape leaves. Grape leaf rolls should be covered by about 4 inches of broth mixture. Bring to a rapid boil, then cover and reduce heat; let simmer about 20 minutes or until rice is cooked.
Serve with hummus, if desired, along with pita crisps, raw vegetable strips and/or crudités.
Note: Although the lamb chops are used primarily for seasoning the broth, they can be served in a separate dish alongside the grape leaf rolls.
Servings: This will usually serve from 10 to 20 people, depending on whether it is used as an appetizer or as a side dish. Ingredient amounts can be adjusted according to personal taste.
2 (14-ounce) cans garbanzo beans, also known as chickpeas
2 to 4 cloves garlic, depending on preference for garlic
1/3 cup tahini paste
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Green and/or ripe olives, olive oil and ground cayenne pepper for garnishing
Raw vegetables, cut or separated into bite-size pieces, if necessary
Drain garbanzo beans, saving juice. Place drained beans into food processor, and add garlic, tahini paste, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Process beans, adding liquid until mixture is of a consistency similar to pancake batter.
Correct seasoning, if necessary, being sure to thoroughly mix in any additions.
Spoon hummus out evenly and neatly into serving bowl, swirl surface with the tip of a spoon, top with a few olives and drizzle olive oil lightly in a circular pattern over top surface. Sprinkle lightly with cayenne pepper.
Refrigerate until ready to serve with raw vegetable strips, crudités and pita chips.