Delicious Destinations–Arabian Nights!

Delicious Destinations Table 2012 - COnce again this year I was a guest chef for the gala fundraiser for St. Vincent’s Health system of Jacksonville, FL.  The annual event called “Delicious Destinations” is held annually the week following Labor Day weekend at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL.  Last weekend was the 11th year for the annual event and my 5th as a guest chef.  The gala is the annual fundraiser for the St, Vincent’s mobile health outreach that travels throughout the community to bring medical services to people who might otherwise have to go without.

The main Saturday event usually ranges between 350 and 400 guests in attendance.  This year was one of the better in recent years with over 425 tickets sold.  Somewhat bittersweet as the chefs had been told to plan on portions for 300 and only learned of the 425 number at 4pm on the day before the event.  Luckily with the number of participating chefs and the array of menu options, there was plenty to go around for everyone to eat to their heart’s content!

A series of three events, it consists of the “Chef by Sea” demonstration cooking class on Thursday afternoon.  This year’s visiting guest chef was Tony May of SD26 in New York City.  Friday evening is the thank you gala for sponsors and highlights the visiting chefs who will be preparing the food for Saturday’s main event.  Saturday’s main event featured five rooms of the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club decked out in décor to match the “Arabian Nights” theme of this years event.  Entering under swags of gossamer fabric that gave the impression of entering a royal palace, guests wandered past displays of Moroccan lamps that flickered and reflected off of jewel toned scarves, sequined pillows, and mounds of grapes and citrus fruit.  Wandering the rooms, they enjoyed sampling over a dozen stations featuring the flavors and foods of the mid-east.

One of the guests was curious about how we coordinate the menu planning for the event…”Do you all have a conference call?” he asked.  No, it’s a combination of our creative thinking and the organizational skill of Hermann Muller, the Executive Chef of the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club.  Each of the chefs are emailed with that year’s theme in the early part of the summer.  Putting on our thinking caps, we each brainstorm a couple of items we’d like to prepare for the event and then email them to Chef Mueller to determine who will make what.  As a participant, one of the great parts of the event (besides the great cause and fun guests of course!) is the fact that the same guest chefs return each year.  It’s like an annual reunion as we jockey for space in the kitchen and attempt to brag about how quickly we got our preparations done (or not).

Fattoush & Khachapurri Closeup - C

Anticipating a lot of couscous, high probability of kebabs, and more than one chef preparing lamb, I decided to take a little creative license with my preparation.  My offering this year was Fattoush garnished with Lamb & Cheese Khachapuri.  Fattoush is a traditional mid-eastern bread salad made with dried pita croutons and dressed with a tart lemony-garlic vinaigrette.   Besides being a great flavorful salad, what’s not to love about saying “Fattoush!” ? (Phony Italian acent: If you don’ta lika my salad I’ll kicka you in the fattoush!)

Darin & Colleen Closeup DD2012 - C

Assisting me once again this year was “my lovely assistant” Colleen Koprivnikar.  I first met Colleen through a mutual friend when we all worked at Walt Disney World.  Once I learned that she enjoyed cooking it didn’t take long for me to put her on speed dial when I needed extra help due to cast members who had called in sick.  Jump ahead 7 years and she’s still getting those calls, this time from four hours away saying “So Colleen….what are you doing on such and such date???”!   Even though she should be concerned when she hears “So Colleen…” she’s still there for me (even at 1 am when we’re portioning and rolling dough for Khachapuri!) and I can’t thank her enough!



In the world-wide tradition of making good use of leftover bread, this Lebanese bread salad uses pita bread toasted into croutons. Mint, parsley, and the lemon-garlic vinaigrette are the flavor backbones of this salad – do not skimp!  Sumac is a mid-eastern berry that provides a tart flavor. It may be omitted if it isn’t available. However, do try to use it as it adds a unique tart flavor different from the lemon juice.  I like to strip the mint and parsley leaves from the stems and add to the salad in the whole leaf form.

Yield: 6 Servings
2 pita bread
1 head romaine lettuce
1 hothouse cucumber
8 radishes, sliced in half lengthwise and then sliced thinly
½ red onion, julienne
3 tomatoes, cut into thick chunks
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons ground Sumac

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Split pita bread in half horizontally to create 4 thin rounds of bread. Place the bread on a baking sheet and toast until crispy. Break crispy bread into small pieces in the bottom of a large salad bowl.

Wash and cut the base off the romaine lettuce. Slice romaine cross-wise into pieces about 3/4-inch in width. Place lettuce in bowl with toasted pita. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds using a spoon. Slice cucumber cross-wise into thin half-moon shapes. Add the cucumber, onion, tomatoes, and herbs to the salad bowl.

In a small bowl, combine the minced garlic with the salt. Stir in the lemon juice and whisk in the oil. Pour dressing over the salad and grind black pepper over the top of the salad. Sprinkle sumac on last. Toss the salad just before serving to keep the bread from getting soggy before it is served.




Cooked Khachapurri -C

My creative liberty took flight with the Khachapuri.  Khachapuri is a traditional stuffed flatbread from the Emeretti region of Georgia in the former Soviet Union.  These are traditionally stuffed with a cheese mixture but I opted to cut back on the cheese filling and mix it with a mixture of ground lamb, Moroccan spices, and pinenuts.  They’ve been in the back of my mind since we made them year’s ago in a cooking class at the Disney Institute.  The dough is a simple tender dough composed of yogurt, flour, salt, and baking powder.

Rolling khachapurri - C

Rolling Khachapuri at 1am…only 180 more to go!

Seemed like it would go quick when I was just dreaming it up!

Stages of khachapurri - C

Stuffing the Khachapuri:

l to r:  Ball of dough, flattened disc of dough, dough with filling inside being pleated, stuffed bread turned seam-side down.

Cooking Khachapurri - C

khachapurri on the griddle -C jpg

From Mid-east bread salad to little yeasted pancakes filled with a ground nut filling, the Ponte Vedra resort was one Delicious Destination!


Lamb & Cheese Khachapuri

Khachapuri are a filled flatbread from the Emereti region of the former Soviet Georgia. They are typically made with a cheese filling but here I’ve blended the cheese mixture with a mid-eastern spiced lamb filling. Georgians eat Khachapuri as a snack for lunch as a light but satisfying meal; it is a good compliment to soups and salads. The breads are soft and surprisingly think about a quarter to half-inch thick. Once you are used to mixing and shaping the breads, the assembly and cooking will go quickly. They can be shaped and refrigerated up to 24 hours before cooking. They can be cooked in the traditional manner on a griddle, or baked in the oven.

Yield: 16 Breads
¾ lb. ground lamb or beef
½ cup finely diced onion
½ teaspoon Kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 ½ teaspoons Ras el Hanout or other mid-eastern blend of spices
¼ cup plain yogurt
½ cup crumbled feta cheese
½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1 egg, beaten

2 cups regular plain yogurt
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
3-4 cups all-purpose flour


Cook ground lamb or beef in a large skillet with the diced onion, salt, pepper, and ras el hanout until meat is well browned. Break up into small bits with a spoon. Remove meat from the pan and put into a bowl, spreading up onto the sides to expedite cooling. Place meat in refrigerator until cool to touch. While meat is cooling, the dough can be made.


Place yogurt, baking powder, and salt into the bowl of a heavy duty mixer. Mix in enough flour to make a batter like consistency. Place mixer bowl onto mixer and attach the dough kneading hook. Turn mixer on and continue to add flour and knead until a smooth but moist dough forms. The dough shouldn’t be excessively sticky nor dry. It should have a nice smooth moist consistency. Remove dough from mixer when it is slightly elastic. Divide dough into 16 even portions and place on a baking sheet covered with a moist towel to prevent drying.

Assembly & Cooking:

Remove lamb mixture from the refrigerator and mix in the yogurt, both cheeses, pine nuts, and egg. Mix thoroughly.

Flatten the dough with the lightly floured palm of your hand. Then, either stretching or using a small rolling pin, roll or flatten the dough to a diameter of about 5 inches. Place a mound of about 2 tablespoons filling in the center of the dough (I like to use a #60 scoop). Pick up an edge of the dough between your thumb and forefinger and stretch it halfway over the filling to the center of the dough round. Then pinch the edge an eighth of a turn along from the first position and bring it to the center. Continue all the way around the circle, stretching the dough as you do, pleating it over the filling, until you have a dough covered mound. Pinch the pleats closed and then, with the lightly floured palm of your hand, gently press down on the top of the mound to flatten it. Turn the bread over and gently press down again on the other side. This will push the filling out into the edges of the bread; it should be ¼ to ½ inch thick and about 6-inchs in diameter.

Preheat an electric griddle or skillet to 375 degrees or preheat a large non-stick pan until a small bead of water dances on the surface. Spray one side of the breads with a light coating of vegetable spray and place sprayed-side down on griddle. Spray the top side lightly with vegetable spray. Cook until nicely golden on first side, about 3 minutes, before turning over. Continue cooking until second side is golden and edges of bread appear to be opaque.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees and bake breads on a greased or parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Bake for about 5-6 minutes. Keep warm in a basket covered with a cloth until ready to serve.


One Comment on “Delicious Destinations–Arabian Nights!”

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