Truffle oil is one of those ingredients that are so fashionable to hate right now. Vilification and bigotry are so common when it comes to food, and if some big shot decides truffle oil is a crap ingredient, everyone else blindly agrees. You hear it over and over again: “it’s not the real thing” or “it’s a cheap rip off”. It becomes so hard to disagree when everyone make such quick judgement. I happen to like truffle oil. I don’t care if it’s not the same as shaving a hundred dollar piece of fungus on a perfectly cooked egg. In my opinion, truffle oil has its place in the kitchen, just like chili oil or lemon oil. It adds so much flavour to food that it’s a shame not to use it.
What gives truffle oil its bad reputation is a family of oils infused with artificial truffle aromas – some chemical made in a lab and engineered so that it smells like truffle. Completely fake. But there are also great products out there. Real olive oil infused with real truffle. I get mine from Simon Johnson and there’s a small slice of black truffle floating around in the oil. It’s strong and earthy and I use it in small amounts when I roast my mushrooms. Try and get your hands on some good truffle oil. Toss thick slices of mushrooms in some salt, olive oil, chopped garlic and a drizzle of truffle oil. You can also sprinkle a bit of dried thyme on top. Bake in a tray covered with aluminium foil for around 30 minutes at 190c. Take the foil off and bake for a further 30 minutes until the mushroomy liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms are soft and dark. I love making big batches of these mushrooms and I keep them in the fridge for days. They go with anything – eggs, pasta, steak, sandwiches – and the truffle oil only makes them more delicious. A good truffle oil is a beautiful thing.
Man it’s good to have my own kitchen once more. I get to cook what I want again! Sometimes, the things I like are not so popular, so I apologise if today’s recipe doesn’t appeal to everyone.
Liver. Offal. Are you into it? I sure am. Apart from being a Lebanese who, like many of my countrymen, eats liver for breakfast, this blogger is, mostly, a low-carber (20kgs lost so far!). I see this photo and I salivate. Maybe my fat-fueled body craves the organ meat or maybe I salivate because because I know how bloody delicious this dish is.
OK. Forget the fact that it’s liver for a second. Look at the remaining ingredients. Butter (from Pepe Saya), cumin, paprika, chili and wild, free-range thyme. Yes, thyme that has freely roamed the hills of Lebanon and has made the long journey to Sydney back with me. Doesn’t it sound awesome? Even Lainy, who usually takes the liver-let-die option, ate and enjoyed it. I first tried this dish at Efendy. In Turkish, it’s called yaprak ciger: leaf liver. I guess it’s so named because the liver is thinly sliced into shapes that resemble leaves. Not sure. Don’t quote me. But does it really matter?
Here’s the recipe, passed down to me by none else but Somer, my main man at Efendy. I’ve changed it a bit but it still works miracles. Buy some fresh calf’s or lamb’s liver. Get your butcher to thinly slice and clean it. Mix a good deal of paprika, pepper, red or black Turkish chili, thyme and cumin together. If you want, dust the liver with flour after washing and drying it, but you don’t have to. Heat up a skillet or a frying pan. Toss in a good deal of quality butter. Add the liver (don’t overload). Add the spice mixture and some salt. Fry the liver, turning occasionally when there’s a bit of colour to it. Don’t fry for more than 3 minutes or so, otherwise it gets too dry. Take off the heat and rest for 3 minutes – if the liver is fresh, it shouldn’t release much liquid. Add some thinly sliced onions and stir around to coat the liver and the onions with the spices. Destroy.
Around the year 2000 BC, Cadmus, the young Phoenician prince of Tyre set sail from the shores of Lebanon in search of Greece. His mission was to find and bring back his sister Europa who had been abducted by none else but Zeus, the father of Gods and men. With him, Cadmus took one of Phoenicia’s most brilliant inventions. You see, the Phoenicians were traders and meticulous documenters, and at some point, they grew tired of drawing cats and dogs like the Egyptians did and had long since given up the labourious cuneiform script that was so well-loved by the Sumarians and the Assyrians. They decided enough is enough, and came up with the alphabet, a means to write that allocated each spoken consonant a character. The Phoenician alphabet was revolutionary, a gift that would change the world and that would endure for millennia. But back to Cadmus, the Greeks understood the importance of what he had brought along with him. We all know Greeks are greedy buggers, and instead of apologizing for abducting Europa, they also abducted the Phoenician alphabet.
Why am I telling you this? Simply, the story above is to show a precedent. Stealing Phoenician princesses and revolutionary alphabets are one thing though, but stealing moussaka – now that can’t but shock you, right? Yes, indeed, one of Greece’s most famous dishes is another missing person case. If you ask a Greek what the word moussaka meant, they’d have no clue. A Lebanese though would immediately tell you that moussaka, or moussaka’a (as we would spell it) means cold or chilled in Arabic and in Lebanese. Moussaka’a is a dish common around Lebanon and the Arab world and usually simply consists of eggplants, olive oil, garlic, onions and tomatoes. The Greek recipe would almost certainly have been identical to the Lebanese one had it not been for Tselementes (who you should really read about), the Greek chef who borrowed influences from the French and smothered the dish with béchamel sauce and meat, in an attempt to make moussaka’a more noble.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Greece’s version of the moussaka’a, but it indeed has strayed far from its origin. Moussaka’a is a humble dish, though one that proves that peasant food is more than the sum of its parts. Good tasting tomatoes are key but what’s brilliant about the Lebanese recipe is the addition of pomegranate molasses. The sweet/sour flavours that it gives are insane with the silky eggplants. No béchamel-laden moussaka can beat that.
2 large eggplants, peeled with just a bit of skin left on, sliced in wedges
4 large onions, sliced
8 cloves of garlic, diced
1 kilo good tomatoes (diced) or ½ kilo tomatoes, ½ kilo passata
2 tbsp pomegranate molasses (Cortas is a reasonable brand)
1 tbsp dried mint
Dissolve 2 heaped tbsp of salt in enough water to cover the eggplant slices. Weigh down the eggplants with a plate to make sure they are submerged and soak for anything between half an hour to over night. Remove the eggplants and squeeze them dry with a kitchen towel. Deep or shallow fry in neutral oil until golden and soft. Remove and set aside. In a frying pan, add around ¼ cup neutral oil and fry the onions and garlic until soft, but not golden. They need to become sweet without getting caramelised. Add the tomatoes and passata if using, the dried mint and the pomegranate molasses. Bring to the boil, taste and season with salt to your liking. Here you can also add more pomegranate molasses if necessary. Preheat the oven to 180c. Put the eggplants in a baking tray, top with the tomato mixture and 1 cup of water. Bake in the oven until the sauce has thickened, around 30 minutes. Put in a serving plate and wait until the dish is cold. I also like it to eat it slightly chilled – after all, that’s what the name moussaka’a name begs you to do.
I get these strange thoughts sometimes. I worry about getting stuck in a time warp, ending up in the days of King Richard the Lion Heart, being faced with the need for penicillin, and then kicking myself for never taking the time to learn how to make my own. There he is, the noble king, lying injured, susceptible to infection. His life is in my hands, but though I am aware of the biotechnology that could save his weakening body, I lack the manufacturing knowhow. Cruel fate, damn you!
Do you get stupid thoughts like these? Probably not, and why should you, but it’s certainly why I’ve always felt like I needed to learn how to make things from scratch. Sufficiency. That’s a state I’d love to achieve. Today, in my quest for this sufficiency, I taught myself how to make my own butter. Feeling pretty good about myself!
It’s been almost a year to the day since we moved to Flemington, and this week we moved out. In preparation for our upcoming trip to Lebanon, we decided to bid Flemington adieu and spend a month with Elaine’s parents in Picton. I love Picton. The green country side, more sunshine than you could ever wish for, acres of space, a star-studded night’s sky and real, raw milk.
The milk comes from cows that belong to a family friend. My mother in law, Pam, brought me 2 liters of super fresh, non-homogenised milk and that got me super excited, as you could imagine. Raw milk is a rare treat in Australia. You can’t get it at the supermarket. I once saw it in a health food shop and it was advertised as a product to be used for a “beauty bath”. That’s because raw milk does not get sold for food in Australia. This one is absolutely beautiful. Look closely and you can see the cream line in the bottle. The milk is super fatty, almost one third cream. I love that! The more fat the better (I’m a low carber these days, so fat is my friend). I used some cream in my morning coffee, to make an omelette, and to make butter. Really great butter.
Making butter turns out to be easy. Put your cream in a jar. Shake the heck out of it. Ten minutes or so, the butter will separate from the butter milk. Strain it, squeeze the excess liquid out, salt the butter and eat it! It doesn’t last long I hear, but it shouldn’t have to last long, right?
Yoghurt is a relatively new ingredient to the western world, despite being a staple in the Middle East for centuries, which is probably why most yoghurt you find on the shelves of Australian supermarkets isn’t really yoghurt, but a mixture of skim milk powder, gelatine, cream, xanthan gum (for texture), yoghurt bacteria, sugar, salt, additives and flavourings. The West seems to favour yoghurt as a creamy, indulgent dessert style food, and it’s mostly eaten cold and sweet. One of the differentiating aspects of Middle-Eastern cuisine is how yoghurt is used for cooking: we make yoghurt soup and boil meats and vegetables in it. I won’t elaborate, as I’ve discussed this before in my labna post here, which is well worth reading, so go read it.
Little Sara is now 8.5 months old. She’s eating a huge variety of food already: apples, pears, custard apples, apricots, plums, blueberries, blackberries, nectarines, watermelon, rockmelon, bread, chicken, beef, lamb, zucchini, pumpkin, silverbeet, hummus, sweet potatoes, cucumber and a whole lot of other wonderful things. It’s now time to see how she handles dairy products, and yoghurt is a good first choice. Obviously, additive laden yoghurt isn’t what I have in mind. Lebanese brands of yoghurt are fine, but I want a bit more quality control in Sara’s first yoghurt, so I made a batch for her. She might have some for lunch today. I’m draining some of the whey to give her creamier yoghurt. This is a deciding moment. Is she Lebanese and, like me, love the stuff, or will her mother’s English genes dominate?
To make yoghurt, bring 2 liters of milk to 83 degrees and cool it to 46 degrees. Add 3 tbsp yoghurt from that tub you have in the fridge (provided that it’s real yoghurt). Mix it in properly. Cover the pot and keep in a warm place for 24 hours. Voila.
Kibbeh can be approached in over 20 different ways. The sheer variety of kibbeh in Lebanese cuisine is what makes most people consider it Lebanon’s national dish. There is raw goat kibbeh, kibbeh meat balls, chickpea kibbeh, potato kibbeh, pumpkin kibbeh, lentil kibbeh, sweet potato kibbeh, rice kibbeh, and the cooking methods include boiling, baking grilling and frying. So in essence, kibbeh is not a singular dish, rather a family of dishes that share a commonality. The basic approach is the mixing of a binding agent (be it meat or a mealy grain or vegetable) with burghul and spices. At its most basic form, raw kibbeh is a fine paste of (traditionally) goat’s meat with burghul, salt and allspice.
I’ve written before about pumpkin kibbeh, which to me is the queen of kibbeh. I moved away from the traditional approach for this recipe. Instead of boiling the pumpkin, I roasted it at 200c with olive oil and salt. The roasting concentrated the sweetness and added the complexity of caramelisation. To complement the sweetness, I caramelised 3 large onions with star anise until they became beautifully dark. Star anise has an affinity with caramelised onions and takes them to a whole different level. This dish proves two things. First, it proves that my design skills are terrible – I can’t draw for shit. Second, it shows that vegetarian dishes can, if done correctly, outshine meat any day. Seriously, this dish is a must try. Give it a go.
Slice the pumpkin, toss in olive oil and salt and bake at 200c until soft and slightly blistered. In the meantime, slice the onions and fry in olive oil with the star anise and a touch of salt on low heat, stirring occasionally until caramelised. Roast the walnuts for 5 minutes in the oven. When the pumpkin is cooked, cool it down and remove the flesh from the skin. Discard the skin. Mash the flesh into a pulp and squeeze through a clean pillow case or something similar, removing as much liquid as possible. Mix the cinnamon and pepper with the pumpkin flesh and add the burghul. Leave for 15 minutes to allow the burghul to soften. Add enough flour to to the pumpkin and burghul to bind it. Oil a cake tin and put half the pumpkin mixture on the bottom, flattening it evenly. Mix the walnuts and the onions, adding them on top of the pumpkin, discarding the star anise. Use the remaining pumpkin and create a layer above the walnuts and onions. Make a pretty design, brush with olive oil and bake on 200c for around 30 minutes, until the surface is slightly golden. Remove from the oven and cool it down. This pumpkin kibbeh pie is best eaten at room temperature.
Have you, like me, had enough with buying basic foods that ought to have 5 ingredients in them but instead have 15? Take bread for instance. Can you find a pre-packaged loaf of bread that doesn’t use soy or emulsifiers? It’s extremely difficult, and that worries me.
I also worry about unknowingly eating genetically modified ingredients. If you’ve seen the documentary The Future of Food, you would also be concerned about what is happening to our food supply. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to. The issue of genetically modified food is one of the biggest facing agriculture today (and in consequence, humanity), along with climate change. Food that contains genetically modified ingredients is already out there, and we probably don’t know that we’re eating it. A recent article by Carli Ratcliff in Good Living centred around Greenpeace’s annual consumer guide, Truefood Guide. The guide gives a “red light” rating to manufacturers who either produce products that contain genetically modified ingredients or who “refuse to provide transparent information regarding the origin of their ingredients.” The Truefood Guide comes out tomorrow, and in the absence of any meaningful Australian labelling laws, it is essential reading, in order for one to be able to choose.
For the moment, I am trying to keep my family’s diet focused on ethically grown and harvested food. To me, that means organic or biodynamic, local and natural (not GM). With meat and eggs, I buy free-range/organic chicken and eggs as well as grass-fed cattle as opposed to grain-fed. I’ve given up supermarket bread since I want mine to be real bread, with real nutrients and nothing else. I’ve started buying bio-dynamic wholemeal wheat flour from Alfalfa House in Newtown and every 3 days or so, I bake a loaf for my family. I use a great little recipe which produces an absolutely delicious loaf with a crisp shell and a dense, moist interior. It involves 5 ingredients and requires no kneading. The bread mix is ready in 5 minutes, rises for around 2 hours and is then baked for 40 minutes. I’m getting into the habit of preparing the dough the night before I bake it, which means we can have warm bread for breakfast. And you know that nothing beats warm, genetically-unaltered bread for breakfast, right?
Danger. The term Middle-Eastern may cause confusion and disorientation. If you thought the Middle East spanned the geographical region that spreads from Egypt to Iran, the G8 begs to differ. Didn’t you know that the Middle East reaches as far west as Morocco? But Morocco is further west than England, I hear you say. Still, you’re wrong. Here’s a link to the map of the Middle East according to the great forces of the world. Move out of the way geography, there’s a higher power at work.
The term Middle East has become a difficult one for me to use. As it is no longer specific to my part of the world, I need to find a better word. How can I describe a dish that is not traditional, but uses traditional flavours in new combinations? Maybe I’ll just name it after my mother. She uses these flavours often… OK then, here you go, an Isabelle style roast pumpkin salad.
Start with some of the basic tabbouleh ingredients. Parsley, mint and burghul. Make sure the burghul is soaked in water for a few minutes until it’s soft and doesn’t break your teeth. Add some roasted almonds and lemon rind. If you’ve never used lemon rind in a salad, you’re in for a treat. I love it so much I even add it to a tabbouleh and it rocks. Add some chunks of oven roasted pumpkin, diced tomatoes if you would like to, some chickpeas (from a can is fine) and dress the lot with some salt, lemon juice (not too much) and generous amount of olive oil. I didn’t have it, but some feta cheese would work a treat, I’m sure. There you go, a salad as Middle-Eastern as apple pie.
P.S. – I’m running out of things to talk about and am looking to you for inspiration. Do you have a Lebanese dish you want to learn to make, or is there an ingredient that is still shrouded with mystery that you want me to tell you about? Leave a comment and let me know.