To know a nation, start with its food.

Simple works wonders. That's what I learned about cooking when I was in college. Saleh, a friend and fellow graduate student in the late 1960s, practiced traditional Muslim hospitality and frequently invited me to dinner.

A chicken dish to which he and his family introduced me was one of my favorites. It was roast chicken stuffed with rice, walnuts, and green peppers.

What he taught me was to pick the biggest chicken in the grocery store. All chickens have pretty much the same amount of bone, just more or less meat. Rinse it, cut off the major fat, and brush it with lemon juice. Better yet, put it in a plastic bag with the lemon juice and let it sit while you preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. and prepare the stuffing.

At our house, this dish is nicely complemented by a simple salad of bibb lettuce, accented with what we have long considered to be our "house" dressing.

With the exception of the cumin, this is quintessential French, or vinaigrette, dressing. But it's the cumin that makes all the difference.

The simple idea came from Dietmar, an Austrian chef at a ski lodge in Vermont that we used to frequent. Another international connection.

I lost touch with Saleh after we both graduated, but I never lost my affection for this chicken and the other Middle Eastern dishes I acquired from him: hummus, tahini, dolma, and baklava. Their flavors have added enjoyment to my life ever since.

My feelings about the Middle East are influenced by my friendship with Saleh. I've never been there, and probably never will, but knowing and appreciating the food makes me a bit more sympathetic.

I've never had much faith in "the war on this" or "the war on that." It seems to me that understanding has to be established person to person, not nation to nation. Grand schemes may lack depth, but if we can agree on a few simple things, we can eventually hope to agree on the more complex issues that divide us.

Learning about one another's cuisines - and perhaps even adopting some of it - is a place to begin, I think. "They" don't seem so alien when "their" food becomes "ours."

As the hadith (a story about the life and sayings of Muhammad) says, "Eat together and do not eat separately, for the blessing is with the company."

Simple Middle Eastern Roast Chicken

1 cup basmati rice
2 cups water
1 large roasting chicken
3/4 cup walnuts, chopped coarsely
1 green bell pepper, chopped coarsely
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon allspice
4 tablespoons lemon juice
2 to 3 tablespoons oil

Mix rice and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover pan tightly, and simmer until all water has been absorbed, about 17 minutes. Let stand, covered, at least 10 minutes more.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

In a large bowl, mix cooked rice, walnuts, bell pepper, salt, pepper, and allspice.

Remove giblets from inside the chicken and set aside for later use, if desired. Place the chicken in a roasting pan.

Mix lemon juice and oil. Brush over the outside and inside of the chicken.

Put the rice stuffing into the cavity of the chicken. Place pan in oven and bake for 15 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. and continue baking about 1 more hour, until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F. on a thermometer, or a leg twists out easily and the skin is golden. (Count on about 15 to 20 minutesper pound of chicken.)

Salad dressing

Use this dressing on any kind of lettuce or salad of mixed greens.

3/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup mild vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 garlic clove, crushed

Put all ingredients in a jar with a lid and shake or whisk until well mixed.

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