Sassool Grocery Challenge: Pearled Couscous with Roasted Garlic, Roasted Red Peppers, Olives & Marinated Feta

We were asked to participate in the Sassool Cary Grocery Challenge & were given a $25 gift card to shop for our ingredients, but all opinions are our own. 

We’re no strangers to Sassool. We live super close to this local Lebanese restaurant’s first location. We’ve eaten there for years, rotating through favorite after favorite on the always delicious menu. We’ve introduced friends & family to the Saleh family’s dishes & have overstuffed ourselves on warm pita & baklava around the table together. We even shop the North Raleigh location’s grocery section for French & Bulgarian feta, reasonably-priced spices, olive oil, tahini & plenty of snacks. So when Tabletop Media Group reached out to us to to introduce you to Sasool’s Cary location’s new grocery section & share a recipe using ingredients from it, our answer was an obvious, “YES.”

The Cary location itself is smaller & cozier than the North Raleigh location, but the staff is just as friendly, the menu just as satisfying & the grocery section just as tempting. We wandered around the shelves & refrigerated section seeing familiar bottles of orange blossom & rose water, jars of pickles & olives, stacked bags of rice, dried beans & other grains, plenty of pita, jugs of olive oil & a great selection of neatly-packed spices. If you’re not already shopping here, it’s time to start.

For this challenge, we wanted to create something new to us, but a dish that would easily be at home on the Sassool menu. We also wanted something that would include both feta & za’atar (a savory spice blend of thyme, ground sumac, sesame seeds & salt) as these are easily the two ingredients we purchase the most from Sassool.

We ended up adding pearled couscous, extra virgin olive oil, roasted red peppers & baroody olives to our purchase, too, which came together to create a satisfying dish that’s just as delicious warm as it is cold. We think it would be a great addition to the Sassool Cary menu & if Mounir, Sassool’s owner, thinks so too, you’ll be able to get a taste in the month of January. Until then, get these ingredients & get cooking!

serves 6-8

2 cloves garlic, peeled & smashed
8 oz. feta, cubed
1/2 tbs. za’atar
4-6 oz. olive oil

Add smashed garlic to the bottom of a resealable glass jar. Set aside. Toss feta with za’atar to evenly coat & add to the jar with the garlic. Pour enough olive oil over the top of the feta to completely cover. Seal jar & refrigerate for at least 24 hours. Let come to room temperature before serving.

12 oz. dry pearled couscous
5 cloves roasted garlic
1/2 cup baroody olives, coarsely chopped (rinsed if couscous is salty)
1 cup roasted red peppers, thinly sliced
1 cup marinated feta, with oil
1 tsp. za’atar

In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Lightly salt & cook couscous according to package instructions. While the couscous cooks, smash the roasted garlic into a paste using the flat side of a chef’s knife.

Drain couscous & check the salt of both the couscous & marinated feta. If they are salty enough for your preferences, rinse the olives. Return the couscous to the pot over low heat & add the garlic paste, chopped olives & sliced peppers. Stir to combine. Using a slotted spoon, scoop the feta into the pot with the rest of the ingredients, setting the remaining oil aside. Season with za’atar & stir to combine. If the dish needs more liquid, add the reserved feta oil one tablespoon at a time until all the ingredients are thoroughly coated. Serve warm or slightly chilled.

*Marinated feta is just as delicious on crackers & toast as it is in this dish. Don’t be afraid to make a double batch.

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Cacio e Pepe

No matter how long it’s been since Tom & I have made a grocery run, we’re usually able to scrape together spaghetti, butter, olive oil & cheese & on those nights we feast like the ancient Romans … or 1960s drunken wage-workers, depending on how you spin the history of the dish. Either way Cacio e Pepe makes for a comforting & satisfying meal that’s both simple & elegant.

Katie Parla, Rome-based food & beverage educator & journalist, says, “Long, hot pasta strands are tossed with the cheese and pepper—as well as some pasta cooking water—to achieve a sauce that ranges from tight and dry to loose and creamy,” & that’s the ingredient list & recipe in a nutshell. Although, the version we lean on adds in a little more richness with a bit of butter & olive oil.

Cacio e Pepe with arugula from Chrissy Teigen's Cravings
Cacio e Pepe with arugula & lemon from Chrissy Teigen’s Cravings.

Despite any slight variance in ingredients, mastering the technique of creating a silky pasta sauce from starchy pasta water, “is deeply rewarding, yielding a delicious pasta that smacks of black pepper and creamy Pecorino Romano cheese in the mouth,” according to Il Palio Chef, Teddy Diggs … & anyone who’s had the pleasure of twirling their fork in a big bowl of happiness.

serves about 4

1 lb. dried spaghetti
1/4 c. olive oil
2 tbs. butter
4 oz. Pecorino Romano, finely grated
1 1/2 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil & salt very generously. Add the spaghetti & cook according to package instructions, drain & set aside, reserving 1 1/2 c. of pasta cooking liquid.

Dry the pot & return it to the stove, cranking the heat up to high. Add the olive oil, heating until almost smoking. Add the cooked pasta & 1 c. of the cooking liquid & toss (with tongs) to coat. Add the butter, 3/4 of the grated Pecorino, most of the black pepper & toss until everything combines into a smooth sauce coating the pasta, adding more starchy cooking liquid, if necessary.

Transfer pasta into individual serving dishes, top with remaining cheese & pepper & serve immediately.

recipe from Smitten Kitchen

Get a taste of this classic Roman dish & many more (wine pairings included!) at Tasting Rome on November 15th at 6:30 p.m. at Il Palio restaurant in Chapel Hill. Tickets are $125/person, available at

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Cómo se dice “go now”?

Almost a year ago, Tom & I were sitting on our back patio sipping wine & discussing traveling to Europe–he’d never been & I’m dying to get to Croatia before everyone else does–when our friend Kristen posted to Facebook & in a matter of minutes, we were going to Cuba instead.

havana ticket - life with the lushers

People have asked us, “Why?” Well, really, why not? Americans haven’t really been able to travel there for decades–in fact, travel to Cuba still has to fall within one of the 12 categories approved by the U.S. government & we’ve never been the type to take a week off & lounge on the beach anyhow. We’d much rather get lost in an unknown city & eat & drink our way out. Oh, did I mention this was a culinary trip? Where do we sign up?

Cultural Contrast, that’s where.

So, the thing you need to know about going to Cuba is that, for lack of better words, it’s consistently inconsistent. Will your hotel room have one bed or three? Will the shower have a trickle of water pressure or enough to rip your skin off? Will the restroom have a toilet seat & paper (Pro tip: Don’t wait to find out. You’ll want to keep a stash of TP in your bag.)? Will the restaurant have butter or margarine (Good-quality dairy products are notoriously hard to find.)? Will the government turn down the gas across the city making finding a good meal kind of difficult? How much rum will be in your drink?

cuban rum pouring

All of the uncertainties aside, Cuba is an amazing place. It’s been untouched–at least by the U.S. or anyone wanting to do business with the U.S.–for decades. There’s vintage cars, incredible architecture, beautiful countryside, great food & rum & an incredible culture with very proud & welcoming people.


On the other hand, there’s crumbling infrastructure, crumbling buildings, state-run television, people still relying on ration books & being paid next to nothing (about $20 a month) with very little access to internet.

& as we sit here watching CNN’s coverage of Obama landing in Havana, do we hope that the U.S.’s opening dialogue means a better life for the Cuban people? Absolutely. Do we want to see the Havana skyline full of cookie cutter chain hotels & the beautiful coral reefs be ruined by pesticides? Absolutely not. Are we glad we went “before the floodgates open”? 100%

vintage cuban cars

While in Cuba, we spent most of our time in Havana, with this as our view.

havana skyline

We also spent quite a bit of time in Old Havana, visited farms & farmers’ markets, art markets, microbreweries, Hemingway’s house, Morro Castle, plenty of paladares (privately-run restaurants), Fusterlandia, cocktail bars & sampled a good bit of Vitamin R (Cuban rum). We drank rum & sang & danced with what seemed like all of Havana along the Malecón on a Saturday night.

la finca

We even traveled to western Cuba to the Viñales valley for the gorgeous views, an amazing meal & walk around the town.

Even though the U.S. government is loosening things up & allowing Americans to travel to Cuba on self-led “people to people” exchanges, we can’t say enough about traveling with a group like Cultural Contrast. The paperwork was a breeze & having our chartered flight, hotel accommodations (which are hard to come by with the influx of tourists), travel within Cuba (& Tommy, the best driver around) & countless other benefits–like tons & tons of bottled water–covered was absolutely priceless. Not to mention, we learned things about Havana & everywhere else we traveled that we wouldn’t have on our own thanks to Jason, our American guide & Rodolfo, our Cuban guide … & we have plenty more of our adventure to share with you, so stay tuned!

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Candied Jalapeños

If your garden looks anything like ours right now, it’s bursting with more hot peppers than you know what to do with.*

Because the squirrels ate almost everything else you planted that isn’t spicy.

candied jalapeno - life with the lushers

It seems like every year we’re faced with what to do with all the chiles that seem to ripen ALL AT ONCE, and somehow, planting fewer plants is never an option. Last year, we made a quadrupled batch of habanero salsa. This year, we’re flush with pounds and pounds of jalapeños, and the best way to deal with all that heat? Add a little sweet.

Candied Jalapeños - life with the lushers

This recipe is about as simple as it gets–simmering jalapeño slices in a flavored syrup–but the flavor is unforgettable. Make it once, and you’ll be hooked, which is totally fine because  these little spicy-sweet slices are delicious on just about anything. Our default is pairing them with goat cheese and crackers, but really anything goes. Sandwiches, scrambled eggs, pizza … Can them & put them up for the year, or just bag them up for storage in the freezer. They’ll last about a year that way, but good luck keeping them around that long.

candied jalapeños


3lbs. jalapeños
2 cups apple cider vinegar
6 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon celery salt
4 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Wash the jalapeños & pat them dry. Slice them into 1/8″ thick rings. You’ll want to break out your mandolin, if you have one & gloves, if your skin is sensitive. Don’t touch your eyes. Once all the jalapeños are sliced, set aside.

Add the apple cider vinegar, sugar, turmeric, celery salt, garlic powder & cayenne to a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and let bubble away for 5 minutes.

Add the jalapeño slices and bring back to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer once more for 4 minutes, stirring frequently to make sure all the peppers are cooking evenly. After 4 minutes, transfer the jalapeños to a large bowl using a slotted spoon.

Turn the heat back up to medium-high and let the remaining liquid boil hard for 12 minutes. Let cool, then add to the bowl with the jalapeño slices.

At this point, we divide the jalapeños and liquid evenly among quart-size freezer bags and keep them in the freezer for up to a year. You could also can them if you’d rather they be shelf-stable.

recipe adapted from Tasty Kitchen

*If you’re garden’s already done for the year, go ahead & bookmark this–you’ll want to have it handy next year. 🙂

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Green Chile Cheese Dip

Each summer, sometime in August, text messages and tweets light up our phones announcing which grocery stores in the area have Hatch chiles, and which ones our friends have just wiped out. See, Hatch chiles come but once a year, and once they hit stores, you only have a small window of time to scoop up as many as humanly possible.

Hatch chiles are only grown in the area around Hatch, New Mexico, and something about that climate and soil make for a seriously great-tasting pepper–not too hot, just bright and flavorful–and we’ve heard, if you’re lucky enough to live in the Southwest, grocery stores and markets set up giant roasters outside when the chile harvest comes in. If you’re in North Carolina, like us, you’ll have to settle for looking like a lunatic at your local Harris Teeter and make a day of the roasting process. But once it’s all done, you’ll have canned or frozen enough of the goodness to get you through until next Hatch chile season … hopefully 🙂

Green Chile Cheese Dip

We love to use the chiles in all kinds of dishes, like soups, stews, chilis, queso, but one of our (and our friends’ and coworkers’) favorites has been this dip.

It tastes a bit like a giant jalapeño popper, but with more bright chile flavor and less in-your-face heat. In fact, bacon wouldn’t be completely out of place. Go for it!

Green Chile Cheese Dip


2 8 oz. packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup mayonnaise
12 oz. Hatch green chiles, undrained & diced (Canned can also be used. Look for Hatch chiles–their flavor is the boldest–but regular green chiles will work, if Hatch aren’t available.)
1 1/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese. divided
1 1/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese, divided
salt, to taste
tortilla chips, for serving

Preheat oven to 375°F, and have a baking dish handy. An 8×8 or pie plate works perfectly.

In a large bowl combine cream cheese, mayonnaise, chiles, 3/4 cup cheddar, 3/4 Monterey Jack, and salt. Stir until well combined, and spread evenly in the baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining cheddar and Monterey Jack on top and bake for 25-30, until the mixture is bubbly and cheese golden brown. Serve while still warm, with tortilla chips, and watch it disappear!

Green Chile Cheese Dip

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