The past couple of weeks have been a bit of a trial for me. Lainy is due to have our first baby in under ten days now, and I have stupidly over committed on many a demanding project. Plus, there’s the world cup. Sydney is in an unlucky situation yet again where the matches are held at midnight or after, which means I am partially sleep deprived. I guess that’s good because I will become fully sleep deprived when the baby comes, so maybe I should consider this as practice.
One of the projects I am working on is on a vein similar to my harebrained secret dinner, which means I have been brainstorming concepts for a Lebanese influenced dish that is simultaneously easy to cook for 70 people, tastes phenomenal, and manages not to look like a piece of shish tawook with garlic sauce and tabbouli. In the process, I’ve probably sketched around 10 dishes, imagined 20 more and attempted to cook half of those. It is only when you go through this process that you gain an appreciation for what chefs go through to come up with something original and exciting. One of the dishes I dreamt up is a slow cooked beef shin with green wheat (called freek) and muhammara. Delicious, but ugly as sin. Maybe one day I will figure out how to make that dish look good and The Food Blog will showcase it, but for now, I just want to share the recipe for the muhammara.
I don’t recall eating muhammara as a child. Maybe because my parents are from the South or maybe it’s because I grew up in Jbeil, but muhammara was never on the menu. According to Wikipedia, it’s a Syrian dip, and Wikipedia never lies, right? On my last trip however, Syrian troops had left Lebanon, and maybe Lebanon was again free to celebrate the food traditions of its neighbours, or maybe I was at the right place at the right time… but I ended up in this restaurant up North with friends, and friends of friends, sitting opposite to this very Lebanese guy with a thin moustache who all of a sudden started lecturing me on chicken livers, and saying something about how before chicken liver reaches The Gate (pointing to his mouth) it needs to pass by The Two Customs Officers (pointing to his nostrils). I’d love to tell you the story in person as I can never express the hilarity of the situation in writing. But to move on, the restaurant was serving muhammara with grilled meat skewers and I got a taste for this delicious dip. Capsicums are roasted on an open flame and then blended with walnuts, toasted bread, pomegranate molasses, garlic, sugar and lemon juice. The lot is spiked with chilli and then emulsified with olive oil. In a way, it’s a sort of Middle Eastern pesto, only hotter and more complex in flavour. It’s all together charred, sweet, rich, spicy and sharp, and goes well on its own with bread or with any form of grilled meat or firm fish. I’m sharing Greg Malouf’s recipe from his awesome book Saha. Try it and it will become a staple, but make sure it passes by the customs officers.
1- Char the capsicums on an open flame, turning until blackened thoroughly
2- Put the capsicums in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. This steams the capsicums and helps them continue cooking and softening
3- When cool enough to handle, remove the charred exterior with your hand. Don’t rinse because that removes the nice smoky flavour. Take the seeds out and put the flesh in a blender or food processor
4- Add all other ingredients except the olive oil
5- Blend into a paste and then add the oil in a thin stream until the paste is thick and creamy
6- Taste and adjust ingredients if you have to
7- Allow to cool before serving