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Rose Previte, of D.C.'s Michelin star restaurant Maydan, releases her debut cookbook

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Hi.

ROSE PREVITE: This way.

KHALID: It's all good.

PREVITE: How are you?

KHALID: How are you?

PREVITE: OK. Nice to see you.

KHALID: Asma.

PREVITE: How's it going?

KHALID: We meet Rose Previte at her Michelin-star restaurant, Maydan, in Washington, D.C. Previte operates four restaurants around the D.C. area, and she's also working on opening up another in LA. And we came here to her restaurant to cook food, eat and talk about her debut cookbook called "Maydan: From Lebanon And Beyond."

I want you to explain the name of the restaurant and the name of the cookbook to us.

PREVITE: I tell everybody it is a word based in Arabic to me, but I learned it in Kyiv. Everyone kept saying when we were there, like, meet at Maydan, meet at Maydan. And I was like, what is this? So then I look into the word, and I figure out that it's Arabic. It's used in Hindi and Farsi as well.

KHALID: Yeah.

PREVITE: And it means the same thing, only it's pronounced differently - and so a square or a gathering place or somewhere that people came to either celebrate, to mourn, to rebel.

KHALID: To Previte, Maydan represents a gathering of people. And that's what she wants this cookbook to do, bring people together around a table. This isn't a restaurant cookbook. Some of the hit dishes from her restaurant menus are in here, adapted for the home cook. But so are classic holiday family dishes that she grew up eating in her Lebanese Italian American home in Ohio. The recipes in this cookbook tie in the flavors of a wide region from the Caucasus to the Middle East and North Africa.

PREVITE: We try not to credit a country. I try to just tell you the story of how I learned it and where I learned it, but that doesn't mean they own it, right? Like, I'm not even about to get into the fight about who owns hummus. Like, this is not a thing we want to fight about, right? Our bread - we call it flatbread. You know, we don't call it pita. We don't call it naan. We don't connect it to, like, a specific place because it's actually a collection of recipes and inspirations.

KHALID: We're standing around a prep table in one of Rose's restaurants.

PREVITE: We are going to make one of my all-time comfort foods that we have at every celebration in my family, kousa.

KHALID: She's got these little green summer squash, some ground lamb, rice, a can of whole tomatoes, mint, cinnamon, onion, butter and of course clarified Lebanese olive oil, extra virgin. The end result - stuffed squash boiled in a pot of tomato sauce. It's a holiday dish. Her family eats it every year at Christmas. Previte starts by coring the squash.

PREVITE: This is my grandma way of doing it. You just stick the knife in, and, like, with a circular motion, I'm just literally using the knife to scrape off the insides.

KHALID: Previte grew up cooking. It was a way to show love and a way to maintain connections with her family's roots. She says her parents went overboard on teaching her how to cook.

PREVITE: These two parents who grew up in these very traditional communities are in a town where absolutely no one is Italian or Lebanese. There's only 3,000 people. There were three stoplights in my hometown. And, you know, I think they quickly realized, like, if they didn't overcompensate on culture, we were going to lose it. Language was already lost, but they're like, OK, so what else can we do? Meaning my mom started catering Lebanese food out of our house. My dad on the weekends would sign up for street fairs and festivals, and we would sell, in his case, his little thing was Italian sausage sandwiches.

KHALID: Previte didn't always imagine she'd work around food. She got a graduate degree in public policy, interned at Human Rights Watch. She says she wanted to save the world. But then she met her husband, former MORNING EDITION host David Greene, and plans changed.

PREVITE: When David came home and said, my dream job to be a foreign correspondent is happening - we just have to live in Russia - I was like, oh, that was not part of the dream job. And I did not have a job, and so I kind of just started tagging along. And we went to 30 countries in three years. So I also started to go to the Middle East, go to the Caucasus. We went to Morocco. I learned a lot about the food of these regions, and I started to see, because of that unique and very special experience, how much the same they were.

KHALID: And then you had this epiphany.

PREVITE: Yes. I do believe the epiphany was a product of sort of losing myself first. I was starting to feel more and more worthless, honestly, like, 'cause I wanted to contribute to the world. I wanted to make a difference. I was feeling very lost when David and I took the Trans-Siberian Railroad for 3 1/2 weeks across Russia. There's nothing like a Siberian winter train trip to get you to really think.

KHALID: Dark and cold, I imagine.

PREVITE: Yeah, just like my heart at the time. And I was just sitting there, like, thinking, because there's barely any electricity. I mean, there were no outlets. And what I ended up, you know, really thinking about was what I really wanted to do. I finally got the courage to say to myself, you love hospitality. You loved bartending. You loved catering with your mom. You love bringing people together just like she taught you. Why don't you do that?

KHALID: So she did. She opened her first restaurant in Washington, D.C., called Compass Rose in 2014. It was street food from her travels, and some of those recipes are in her cookbook, along with family recipes like the kousa we're making today.

PREVITE: We need to do a couple of things. We need to mix the meat with rice, cinnamon.

KHALID: OK.

PREVITE: This was a big debate with the family, was does the cinnamon go in the meat or in the tomatoes? My mother does put it in the meat, so I'm doing what she tells me to do, which is rare. But, you know, we're trying. I was going to say trying to learn recipes from your relatives...

PREVITE: Oh...

KHALID: I don't know how you can do that. I feel like I asked my grandma, what do I do? And she's like, put a teaspoon of this.

PREVITE: Oh, it was brutal. It was brutal.

KHALID: Did they measure things for you?

PREVITE: They did.

KHALID: Oh, that's phenomenal.

PREVITE: Yeah.

KHALID: That's rather impressive.

PREVITE: It was - I was begging. And then, I had them all in one room last winter. I thought, oh, this is perfect.

KHALID: Yeah.

PREVITE: My aunts are all visiting. My mom's here. I'm just going to get this done. By the time I walk in the house, my sister-in-law is like, what have you done? I said, what are you talking about? She goes, two of them are not even talking to each other because they started fighting over how my grandmother did it.

KHALID: Oh.

PREVITE: And one was saying, oh, I made this with her more than you did. And I know that we do it this way. And so everybody's been repaired. Everyone's speaking again.

KHALID: So everybody had it mentally, though.

PREVITE: Everyone mentally and emotionally, right?

KHALID: Yeah.

PREVITE: Like, everyone cooked it from the perspective of what they did with their mother. But it was a laborious process because they have never used measuring spoons or...

KHALID: (Laughter) Yeah.

PREVITE: ...Anything for this. Like...

KHALID: It's like, a pinch of this...

PREVITE: Well, honestly, I don't either when I make it. So I...

KHALID: Really?

PREVITE: No...

KHALID: Oh.

PREVITE: ...I don't use - I don't measure this one 'cause I made it so many times.

KHALID: Wow.

PREVITE: It's all from feel.

(SOUNDBITE OF POURING RICE)

KHALID: Yeah. You just poured that bag of rice in.

PREVITE: Yeah. No measuring here.

KHALID: No measuring (laughter).

Some of the recipes in this cookbook also come from other families, home cooks, women in little towns in countries like Tunisia, Georgia or Oman that Previte met while she was researching food.

PREVITE: People always ask, how did you meet these women?

KHALID: Yeah, I was going to ask.

PREVITE: Did you just, like, knock on doors and like - yes, sometimes. We met someone in a market, and they are so hospitable that they would actually welcome us to their home. We met a woman who was writing an English-language Tunisian cookbook. 'Cause as she invites us into her home, and we start cooking this harissa and baking bread, and she just looks at me. She's like, why are you here? What are you doing with us (laughter)? And I was explaining. She goes, oh, I see now. You want to learn from the women. She goes, oh, that is so smart. Because here, all the men work in restaurants, and the men really don't know what they're doing. So it's way better that you're here (laughter).

KHALID: OK, so you're mixing up the lamb, the cinnamon, salt, rice...

PREVITE: Yes.

KHALID: ...And butter. Now, you're just mixing it up with your hands.

PREVITE: Just with your hands. Yeah.

KHALID: Back in the kitchen, we stuff the lamb and rice mixture into the hollowed-out squashes.

PREVITE: You just push it down with your finger.

KHALID: OK.

PREVITE: There's no other way to do this. I don't know of any machine that will do this for you.

KHALID: It's like, you have to get your hands dirty.

PREVITE: Yeah, get your hands dirty. Now, what happens - I can kind of tell there's room in the bottom...

KHALID: OK.

PREVITE: ...So I tap the bottom.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING)

KHALID: Oh, OK.

Once the kousa is stuffed, we add it to a pot of the tomato mixture.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIQUID BUBBLING)

KHALID: It bubbles away for about 20 minutes, and then it is time to eat.

(SOUNDBITE OF UTENSIL SCRAPING)

KHALID: When we eat, I ask Previte about something that has been on my mind a lot, given the war in Israel and Gaza. How does she wrestle with paying homage to the food of the Middle East while that region is in so much turmoil, violence, forced migration, and specifically food insecurity?

PREVITE: One of my goals with this book is to use the privilege I had in traveling the way that I did to bring back things to the U.S. for people that can't travel that way and introduce them to things - to food, and through the food, the people and the cultures that I have been and I'm so grateful - I don't want to cry on the radio - to experience. So from day one, I wanted to teach people here the hospitality that we were given all over this region, in places that Americans thought we were crazy to go to because they only associate it with war. We were welcomed into homes like we were family. So sad - sorry - 'cause it's really bothering me. It has been really hard. It's been really hard to put this book out at this time. Sorry.

KHALID: It sounds like you want people to understand the region better and understand that food can help break down some of those barriers that people think are so insurmountable.

PREVITE: Yeah. We all want to believe that, like, sitting at a table and breaking bread - I still believe in that. But I know myself I couldn't go to Lebanon as a kid 'cause there's a war the entire time. I would have loved to go to Yemen, but speaking of food insecurity, what an amazingly rich food culture they have - that they themselves are starving. And so we do acknowledge that. But I just feel like, especially when there's even bigger conflicts that scare everyone here, that there's still a lot of people behind those stories. Like, they're so human. And they're doing - trying to do the same thing we're doing here every day, which is just feed our families and keep them safe. And so I want to keep telling that message, but just it feels - it does feel small right now when the problems are so big.

(SOUNDBITE OF THRUPENCE'S "HOW TO BE INVISIBLE")

KHALID: That was Rose Previte. Her debut cookbook is called "Maydan: Recipes From Lebanon And Beyond."

(SOUNDBITE OF THRUPENCE'S "HOW TO BE INVISIBLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.