Ron & Leetal Arazi, Chefs and Founders of NY SHUK

Photos by Christine Han Photography for Pantry Confidential. 

Ron & Leetal Arazi, Chefs and Founders of NY SHUK
Ron and Leetal's food is damn delicious. The flavors—complex but immediately accessible—illicit head-nodding approval and leave you wondering what it is you're eating. Is this Middle Eastern food? The answer is yes, but what you're tasting is NY SHUK's exploration of it, drawing upon their Moroccan-Lebanese-Sephardic traditions and coming up with a version all their own. What we found after visiting their home was something greater than the sum of its parts. Sure, they create carefully crafted handmade kitchen essentials for their NY SHUK PANTRY line, not to mention some INSANELY beautiful and delicious hand-made couscous, but the intangible elements that bind this husband-and-wife team, steeped in their strong cultural identity, are what make them truly unique. No task is too menial, too laborious, or too much in Ron and Leetal’s kitchen. They’ll gladly and generously give their all in creating a beautiful meal, table and product.  Their heart and soul is what you're tasting, and we're thankful they're right here in New York to educate and delight us all. 

Read more about this special duo, their favorite ethnic eats in New York and find out how you can get your hands on NY SHUK pantry items… 

**AMAZING GIVEAWAY ALERT! (Hint: A home-cooked dinner for two!) Scroll to the bottom for info.**

Please tell us a little bit about yourselves, especially your backgrounds growing up and eating in Israel.  
Ron: I was born into a family where food was a viable part of its life. My mom cooked every day and every family gathering with my grandma, aunts and all the kids, always involved food. When you come to visit any one of them, even today, the first thing they would ask is: "What would you like to eat?” I think that gives the perfect explanation of how food is the core of that culture.

When I left home at the age of 23 (yes, 23 - in Israel you can stick around as long as you like ☺) I had to start cooking for myself and it was then that I understood that I liked it and want to try and give it a shot in a professional way. I took the normal route of cooking school, working at a hotel, then restaurants and a bread bakery; when Leetal and I moved to New York, I understood that the food I grew up with is the one that really matters. 

This food is so rich, full of culture and emotion, and so underrepresented in New York. When we both understood that if we didn't take a stand and keep our family traditions and cultural heritage it would probably disappear in a few years, we knew that this is our destination and we chose to bring it to other people's lives through our condiments and share the knowledge we love so much. 

Tell us about NY SHUK, how the idea and product line came about. 
Leetal: Two and half years ago we decided to pack our bags and head for a fresh new start in NYC. In NYC we came to realize that the definition of Jewish food is very different from what we grew up with and decided to put an emphasis on Jewish Sephardic food and preserving its culinary heritage.

The bigger part of our mission is our product line: NY SHUK PANTRY. Our goal is to give home cooks who love Middle Eastern/North African flavors the right tools to create those flavors at home with the utmost ease.

What is your favorite cookbook?
Leetal: My grandmother’s cookbook. Always brings me back to the food I love the most. 

Favorite food memory from your youth? 
Ron: During the holiday of Sukkot, my grandfather would be in charge of pita making. He would make it on a small electric grill on the front porch while my grandmother would make a fava bean soup with a dollop of harissa (minced garlic and a squeeze of lemon is added to the harissa). We would mop up the soup with that fresh pita while eating outside in the sukka. 

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What inspires your cooking and recipe development?
Leetal: The best inspiration comes from the people we meet. Some inspire us to create the food we love, some inspire us to create the food they love. 

What are some favorite dishes you two like to eat and make for yourselves?
Leetal: We like to play around with the food we make for ourselves. No dish is ever the same. We enjoy buying ingredients we are not familiar with and explore new flavors and textures.

What are some of your favorite restaurants?
Leetal: Our current favorite spots we enjoy going to are: Phayul for spicy beef tongue, Gulluoglu for su burek filled with feta cheese and parsley and the hazelnut and cream baklava, the Picante sandwich at Despaña, chicken kebabs and samsa at Café Kashkar, cauliflower pizza at Sullivan Street Bakery, anything at Breads Bakery, cod fish with fish roe dumplings at Dumpling Galaxy, khachpori at Brick Oven Bread, mille-feuille at Cannelle Patisserie, hot tarte tatin with crème fraîche at Laduree, chicken mole at El Atoradero

What are the pros and cons to building a business and working with your life mate? 
Pro: spending 24/7 of our time together
Con: spending 24/7 of our time together

Your couscous is like none other we've seen before. What are your thoughts on couscous available here and what tips would you have for home cooks who want to amp up their grocery store couscous? 
Ron: Fresh couscous and dry, boxed couscous are two very different products. Unfortunately, no tips will help elevate boxed couscous to that of freshly steamed hand-rolled couscous. But an important tip when you are taking the time to make fresh couscous will be to make enough so you can freeze it. It keeps really well in the freezer and will last you awhile. 

Left: Pantry essentials; Right: Squid ink hand-rolled couscous, made on that spot! 

Left: Pantry essentials; Right: Squid ink hand-rolled couscous, made on that spot! 

Favorite kitchen utensils or gadgets?
Ron: The most important kitchen utensil we will ever own is our own pair of hands; it’s the only "kitchen tool" that can really transfer intention and emotion into a dish. 

Top pantry essentials in your kitchen?
Leetal: tanzeya, l'ekama, harissa, Argan oil, turmeric-garlic concoction we make, dried sage. 

Favorite thing about your kitchen?
Ron: The light. 

Whose pantry would you like to raid?
Leetal: I am a sucker for a good pantry and that’s part of the reason our product line is called NY SHUK PANTRY. We are on a mission to introduce our pantry to others who are interested in bringing Middle Eastern and North African flavors to their own home. Long story short: I would love to have the time to raid our own pantry, we have so many interesting ingredients that we have yet to mess around with.

Play out your ideal dinner party for us: the mood, decor, music, guests and obviously, food!
Ron: Our friends, family and a big steaming pot of couscous.

Do you have a secret or unexpected ingredient you love to use?
Ron: Yes… tanzeya, l'ekama and harissa. It might sounds like a broken record, but our pantry staples are our little secret. They find their way into 90% of the food we cook; it just gives everything that extra oomph of flavor.
Any guilty pleasures?
Leetal: Crappy coffee I bring from Israel and carry with me wherever I go. 

Which chefs and food producers do you admire?
Ron: We admire home cooks. Each and every person out there who takes the time to cook food that tastes like home (no matter where in the world "home" is).

*   *   *
Rice, Herbs and Harissa-Stuffed Onions

Recipe courtesy NY SHUK. Photos depict a doubled recipe. 

3 onions (you will use these to wrap the filling)

2 additional onions, diced
1 cup uncooked rice, washed well
2 bunches parsley, finely chopped
1 bunch dill, finely chopped
¼ cup mint, finely chopped
2 tablespoons harissa
¾ cup water
1 teaspoon salt

2 cups water
2 tablespoons harissa
1 tablespoon l’ekama
½ teaspoon salt

Prepare the onions:
Peel the onion skins and make a slit that just goes halfway into the onions, not all the way through. 

Boil water and salt in a pot, add the onions and cook until the onion is tender. Another trick to soften the onions is to wrap them in cling film (as seen above) and microwave them for approximately 3 to 5 minutes until they are soft. Let cool. Peel the layers and lay them on a paper towel one next to the other. 

Make the filling: 
Sauté the diced onions until soft, add herbs and rice. Mix the harissa with the water and salt, add to the pan and mix well. Once the rice has absorbed all the water, remove the pan from the heat. The rice should not be cooked all the way. 

Depending on the size of each layer of the onion, place approximately 1 teaspoon of the filling in each layer of the onion. Roll and tuck the onion with the filling. Lightly oil the bottom of a shallow pan and tightly arrange the stuffed onions, seam side down.

Make the broth: 
Mix the water, harissa and l’ekama together and taste for salt. Pour into the pan holding the onions and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and cook for about 45 minutes, until the rice is fully cooked. Transfer the onions to a heatproof dish, and bake at 400 degree Fahrenheit in the oven until the onions are nice and golden, approximately 45 minutes.

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Ron and Leetal are offering up a most generous giveaway: a homemade dinner for two in their home! This won't be just any meal. The feast pictured in the photos above is not unlike what they are used to having for themselves. A meal with Ron and Leetal is truly a feast for the senses. 

For your chance to win, please follow both @nyshuk and @pantryconf on Instagram and show us your favorite spice and/or how you use it. Tag us in your photo(s) and don't forget to include the hashtag: #dinnerwithnyshuk. Ron and Leetal will choose their favorite. Deadline is Monday, Nov. 23. Good luck!

*Fine print: Dinner for two must be redeemed in January 2016. Two dates will be offered. Contest open to all residents who can make it to Brooklyn for a wonderful dinner!