Lebanese style dandelion leaves
Before I begin this entry, I want to direct your attention to the ceramic bowl above which I made in December. This one is my pride and joy.
OK. Let’s start.
Talk to any real food lover out there and they will sing the praise of simple, honest, traditional food. One might be seduced by the luxury of foie gras, the aromatic intensity of truffles or mesmerising power of silky wagyu beef, but it’s easy to get something ethereal out of ingredients that are so good (and expensive) to start off with. But in my opinion, real ingenuity comes from creating flavour out of ingredients that are undervalued, humble, or even down right met with disdain. Having gone through several famines, my Lebanese ancestors have had to put their devious talents where their mouth is and derive their nutrition from the least likely of plants and cuts of meat. One example is akkoob (gundelia tournefortii, ????), a thorn that grows in the high mountains of Lebanon and in Syria and Jordan. This thorn is notoriously difficult and painful to harvest and its preparation is equally hazardous. But what you are left with, apart from green-hued bleeding fingers is a stem that works culinary wonders in stews, stir fries and with eggs. What drove someone to identify this wicked thorn as a potential source of food is beyond me. My guess is nothing short of extreme hunger.
Another such example of unlikely food is the dandelion (??????). In Australia, dandelion is mostly considered a lawn weed suitable only to feed guinea pigs, yet it is widely loved in Lebanon and is the main ingredient and namesake of the popular dish hindbeh. Dandelion gets its name from the French dent de lion, meaning lion’s tooth, in reference to the serrated shape of the leaf. Dandelions might be commercially grown in Lebanon, but most families I know gather their supplies from the wild, or buy it from the forager. So while Lebanese children are picking the dandelion flowers and making a wish before blowing on the parachute-like seeds (the wish comes true if the seeds fly in the direction you chose earlier), the savvy, cost-conscience mothers are busy harvesting.
The dandelion could be mistaken for other weeds with similar but hairy/thorny leaves (ones whose name I do not know, so avoid hairy leaves please). The smooth dandelion leaf is best harvested in early spring if intended to be eaten raw in salads, as its bitter flavour has not fully developed. As the leaf matures, it grows larger, thicker and more bitter. This bitterness can be minimised by blanching or by washing thoroughly and then squeezing out the liquid. However, bitterness is not a bad thing, as most naturopaths will tell you. It is usually an indicator of a plant’s ability to detoxify the body and the liver (or that the plant is poisonous!). Dandelions are high in protein, naturally diuretic and anti-inflammatory and are rich in potassium and beta-carotene and many other highly beneficial minerals, which is why this humble plant has been very popular in herbal medicine.
This time of year sees a proliferation of dandelions in New South Wales, and since I am a lover of wild/foraged food, I did not want to miss the opportunity to feast on dandelions this year. A brief half hour walk down the road in Earlwood resulted in 400 grams of fresh dandelion leaf. Sure, the neighbours looked on suspiciously, the dogs barked madly and the joggers gazed in distrust. But don’t let that stop you. The sunshine and the buzz you get out of collecting your own food is alone worth it. But to make things even better, this is a recipe for hindbeh, our favourite way of cooking dandelion. The idea is to fry the leaf with garlic and onions in olive oil until it is almost dry, and then it would be ready to absorb the lemon juice you add. It is then topped with caramelized onions and eaten cold. To make mine a bit more of a proper meal, I added chickpeas, toasted pine nuts and a nice dollop of yoghurt on top. Such classic Lebanese flavours. It’s too cheap to be true.
NOTE: If dandelions are not available, you can substitute them with endive (available at supermarkets)
Hindbeh – Dandelion Recipe
Preparing the Dandelions
Cooking the Dandelions (Hindbeh)
500 g dandelion leaf, prepared as above (weighed before blanching)
4 large onions, cut in thin wings (halved, then diced vertically)
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
½ cup olive oil
½ cup lemon juice
2 tsp salt
1 cup boiled chickpeas (optional)
½ cup Greek style yoghurt (optional)
2 tbsp toasted pine nuts (optional)
Talk about slow food! This weekend I cooked snails that Ludwig and I collected from Portland NSW, and they were delicious. Don’t get squeamish or revolt in disgust. Instead, keep an open mind and perhaps you too can make something tasty out of those garden snails eating those lovely basil leaves in your well-tended garden. Yes, it’s true. Your garden snails are edible delicacies that we have been enjoying for thousands of years. The French are perhaps the first people to come to mind when you think about edible snails, with their love of escargots cooked with garlic and herbs. But the French are certainly not the only people with a penchant for the little molluscs. The Italians, for instance, have been eating both land and sea snails since Roman times, and the Lebanese love them as well.
As a child, I knew that the best time to go looking for snails would be when the first good winter rain had arrived. Snails love heat and humidity, and that last bit of warmth combined with the rainfall seems to bring them from their hiding. A good place to look for them would be under sheltering stones, bushes or branches fallen of trees. A snail gathering expedition would yield bucket loads if we were lucky. The snails would then be kept in a well ventilated plastic knit sack (similar to what they sell lemons in these days) to purge for a couple of weeks before they are consumed. This purging process is necessary to ensure that the snails empty their digestive tract, especially of all harmful toxins they may have ingested. I washed these snails in several changes of cold water before plunging them for 5 minutes in boiling salted water. This initial boil kills the snails instantly, and also gets rid of the scum which rises to the surface. Draining the snails and boiling them again in fresh water with aromatics starts the real cooking process which goes on for around 2 hours. After that, the snails should be easily removable from their shells. I like to rinse them in fresh boiling water one more time before they are ready to be prepared for eating. Traditionally, the Lebanese stop cooking right there, and just eat the snails with tahini and Lebanese bread. So far, this to me is the best way of eating snails and I much prefer it to any fancy preparation.
Unfortunately, I had only picked a small amount of snails and I wanted the portions to stretch. This snail spaghetti worked a treat, and it drew on the French preparation which shares Lebanese flavour accents of garlic and parsley. In addition to that, I simply used verjuice (juice of unripe green grapes) and chilli. Verjuice is a staple in the Lebanese larder, especially in country towns that are too high in altitude to grow citrus trees. It has a good citrus tang and is slightly sweet. If you hate the idea of eating snails, rest assured that they are not slimy or rubbery. They don’t smell or taste foul. They actually taste similar to mussels and in the same way their texture, though slightly chewy, is lovely.
I will give this recipe with no measurements, since I assume you know how to cook pasta, and the rest of the ingredients are really a matter of taste. The snails of course, depend on availability.
For the Pasta
To make the pasta
Zaatar Ice Cream (melting in the Sydney heat)
While in France last year, Lainy and I made our way down from Paris, through Orleans and to Provence and then ended up in the enchanting Cote d’Azur, better known in English as the French Riviera. We settled for a week in the seaside city of Nice, taking indulgent day trips to Italy to have a bowl of pasta, and then heading back for a stroll and a glass of wine in the city. It was here where I met my childhood friend Grandizer, strolling on the pebble beach, and it was also where I saw the different flavours of ice cream on display. The French seemed adventurous with the flavours on offer and they seemed to look at local flavours for inspiration. Lavender ice cream was an obvious one, but coquelicots (corn poppy) ice cream, though relevant, was a bit more abstract.
This got me thinking, and I decided that a zaatar (thyme) ice cream is in order. At first this might not seem like a match made in heaven, right? Zaatar for the Lebanese is a savoury herb, and we eat it every day mixed with sumac, toasted sesame seeds and olive oil, and it forms our very basic breakfast. We also use it to marinate meats and sprinkle it in salads. Zaatar is not exactly a herb that you would say, put in a cake. You would probably not find Coca Cola rushing to make a special edition Zaatar Coke for that ultimate manakish experience. Zaatar chewing gum? Refreshing…
But hold on. The French are making coquelicots ice cream for God’s sake! Have you ever nibbled into a coquelicot, and tasted that red bitterness. Or have you ever smelled the grassy green aroma it gives out? If you have, you might agree with me that with all things being equal, zaatar ice cream might not be such a bad idea. And indeed, if you taste my ice cream, you might even agree that it’s actually a great idea. The lingering aroma of thyme infuses beautifully in the custard, and marries with its luxurious creaminess like, well, a match made in heaven!
To make this ice cream, I followed a basic vanilla ice cream recipe, and instead of infusing vanilla beans in the milk and cream, I infused the zaatar. I used dry, Lebanese zaatar, because it has a completely different flavour to fresh thyme. And to complete the flavour profile and the play on the zaatar theme, I threw in some toasted sesame seeds. It is worth mentioning that this ice cream usually comes out milky white. The color you see in the photos is purely because I used raw cane sugar (because it is low GI). I actually prefer white sugar in this recipe because I find the treacly sweetness of raw cane sugar slightly overpowers the aroma of the zaatar. You must try this recipe because you will love it, but please, don’t eat it wrapped in Lebanese bread with cucumbers and olive oil!
Zaatar Ice Cream Recipe
The Lebanese are bacillophobic, but their fear of bacteria is somewhat selective and irrational. Growing up, most chicken I had was cooked until all trace of moisture had evaporated. Runny eggs? Forget it. Sashimi? Unheard of. Yet, from the age of five, I have been enjoying delicacies such as kibbeh nayyeh (raw minced beef/lamb), liyyeh (raw tallow fat) and even raw liver (which is great by the way, with nothing but finely ground black pepper and a sprinkle of salt). It seemed that lamb and beef were exempt from germs, if your uncle knew the butcher, but a nice fresh piece of raw kingfish was out of the question. Things are changing, and sushi is now all the rage (I have a good story about that, but I’ll save it till later), but it seems there is no convincing my fellow compatriots of the virtues of a buttery, creamy egg yolk that is barely starting to set. For instance, my good friend Ludwig, upon a recent visit to Lebanon tried to make his brother scrambled eggs. The eggs were organic and fresh, and Ludwig cooked them to perfection, but his brother still would not touch them because they were still “raw”! Instead, the normal way of eating eggs would be frying them until the whites were golden crisp and the yolks were completely dry. Then and only then would they be safe! It was only when I came to Australia in 2001 when I saw the lunacy of this approach.
Now that I’ve sufficiently ranted, it is worth mentioning that we do have some excellent egg recipes. Eggs with qawarma (lamb preserved in its fat) for instance rivals the best eggs and sausages, truly. Another favourite of mine is eggs with sumac. Sumac is both the sumac plant and the dried crushed berries that grow on it. Sumac, verjuice and pomegranate molasses form a trinity in the Lebanese villager’s mouneh (larder) and they serve the purpose of providing acidity, and are excellent substitutes for lemon juice, especially in the mountains where citrus trees can not grow. The use of pottery to cook the eggs is also traditional, and with sufficiently low heat, you will be able to achieve crisp egg whites, while maintaining a creamy yolk. Sumac sprinkled on top of the eggs is wonderfully decorative, and its acidity is not overwhelming, but is aromatic and interesting.
Eggs with sumac recipe
There is really nothing to this recipe. Put a ceramic fry pan on a low flame and add a tablespoon of olive oil. When the oil is hot, crack the eggs on top. After a minute or two, add your salt, pepper and sumac. How much you add depends on your taste, but I’d say half a teaspoon of sumac for each egg. Keep frying until the egg whites have set. Serve with fresh Lebanese bread and Greek-style yoghurt.
With the festive season still in progress, the excesses of Christmas are catching up with me. My diet has mainly been terrible: a low intake of veggies (peas), coupled with a massive increase in animal fat (read duck fat, cream, butter) and animal protein , and those nice bottles of sherry and wine – my liver is sluggishly churning through the indulgences, and I’m feeling sleepy. But it is the season to be jolly after all, and you can’t be jolly without puds, right?
Mighli is one of those Lebanese desserts suitable for Christmas, and it’s fat free, so my digestive system is partially thankful. Mighli’s suitability for Christmas comes from two aspects. The first one is the recipe’s use of spices – cinnamon, aniseed and caraway – as spices are used for Christmas puds the world over. And second, the Lebanese make this recipe when a child is born, so of course, it is very relevant to the birth of Christ. The beauty of this recipe is in its simplicity, flavour and texture. Mighli means boiled, and I believe that is because the creamy mouth feel comes from boiling rice flour with sugar, water and spices, making it surprisingly rich for a fat free dessert. Joumana from Taste of Beirut has a nice entry on Mighli, and since she wrote her blog entry before I did, I owe her a mention. So try this dessert – it’s sweet, creamy and somewhat healthy. Well, healthier…
Water – 6 cups
Sugar – 1 cup
Rice Flour (Fine) – 1 cup
Cinnamon – 2 tsp
Aniseed – 1 tsp
Caraway – 3 tsp
Pistachios, no shell, soaked overnight – a big handful
Pine nuts – a big handful
Almonds, peeled, soaked overnight in water laced with orange blossom water
Raisins, dried shredded coconuts or anything that takes your fancy
I’m sure everyone will agree that the English have Christmas pudding down pat. A warm, moist cake bursting with brandy and rum, studded with candied fruit, raisins and currants, and spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. And to make things even better, a bit of brandy butter or custard! In contrast, the Lebanese do not have a Christmas pudding, but I thought that sfouf would make a fine cake for the festive season. Though much lighter, and indeed drier than a Christmas pud ought to be, sfouf gets its distinctive color from tumeric, which along with aniseed gives it a distinctive flavour. It’s this spicy combination that in my mind makes it Christmasy. My British friend Daniel – whose taste buds were shot off in the war – recalls eating this cake prepared by his Lebanese neighbours in London. He hated it, and in consequence has little regard for Lebanese food. I maintain that Daniel’s neighbours must have not known a good sfouf recipe. The cake is simple and fragrant. But don’t expect a moist cake; this one is on the dry side and is perfect with a cup of coffee or tea.
In Lebanese, sfouf means “rows”, which I believe is in relation to the way it is cut on the baking tray. The best sfouf I’ve ever had was in the city of Sidon (Saida), from a street cart pushed by an old man. This travelling patisserie only sold sfouf and nammoura, another beautiful dessert. From what I understand, the old man had been selling these cakes all his life. At some point, he had made enough money to open a shop, but he left that to his kids to run, as he preferred pushing the cart in the open air and speaking to old friends. And as the old man walked through the busy streets of Sidon, people would flock to buy the fresh, aromatic, yellow cake. One of my favourite things about this cake is the use of tahini to “butter” the tray or cake tin. It gives the edges a beautiful crunch and nuttiness. For an authentic experience, do not substitute the tahini with butter. This recipe is adapted from Chef Ramzi.
Sfouf Recipe (makes 1 medium cake)
At school, we learn that Lebanon is a Mediterranean country with an Arab façade. Due to this dual identity, we are taught Phoenician history, and it forms a large part of our self image. Even though the rest of the world may consider Lebanon an Arab nation, many Lebanese consider themselves and their country separate to the Arab world. Our Canaanite ancestry is one we hold on to dearly, and with pride. Our refusal to be labelled as Arabs does not stem from a desire to be non-conforming or dissidence. The Arab label is simply not accurate for us as a people. Genealogically, our ancestry does not trace back to the Arabian Peninsula or the Syrian Desert. Linguistically, our language has more Syriac and Aramaic influences than Arabic. But we are considered Arabs only as a government which has political interest in embracing an Arab identity. That said, our relationship with the Arab world is a close one. We learn the history of the Arabs, of their Golden Age, their sciences and medicine, their poetry and their arts. We are also taught to speak and read Arabic (an illiterate Lebanese will not intuitively understand Arabic), which is our formal written language. This has allowed us to gain a great appreciation for our neighbours and to celebrate their achievements, and in this case, we learn to revel in their culinary contributions.
From before the year 1400 AD, there were more cook books written in Arabic than there were in all the languages of the world combined. Arab food was richer, more sophisticated and more complex (made so by the Arab invasions of Persia) than any of its contemporaries. The cuisine had access to an unbelievable variety of products and produce: delicate, heady flavours of saffron and rose water, the sweetness of cane sugar, honey, date molasses and grape juice, the sharp acidity of vinegar, fresh herbs and dried spices, rich fatty meats and game, fruit and vegetables, sumac, cheese, murri (Arab equivalent of soy sauce), yoghurt, etc… Endless combinations gave way to new dishes, many of which remain in existence to this day, and many other that have disappeared, but whose trace can be seen in dishes kept alive in other forms by other cultures.
One of these dishes is al-sikbaj (pronounced assikbaj, s being a solar letter). One of the most popular Arab dishes of its time, al-sikbaj is mentioned in most medieval Arab cookbooks. The name derives from the Persian sikba: sik, “vinegar”, ba, “food”. And so, the basic premise is that meat is cooked in a mixture of some sort of sweetener (honey, grape juice, date molasses) and vinegar. The interesting thing about al-sikbaj is that it is no longer cooked in the Arab world. Its memory now lives on in the Spanish escabeche. During the Arab invasions of Spain and Portugal, al-sikbaj became part of the local diet. The name was changed due to mispronunciation to escabeche, but the recipe stayed more or less intact. To this day, escabeche denotes a meat that has been cooked in vinegar and something sweet. This dish may have also reached South America and given its name to ceviche (but the scholars have not yet agreed whether this is true or not, with several theories on the subject). However, another interesting word that derives from al-sikbaj is aspic. Since al-sikbaj can be eaten cold, as the cooking liquid cools down, it becomes a jelly, and as such, the word aspic (meat jelly) came to be, as an another alteration of the original word.
In my reference books, I have around seven different recipes for al-sikbaj. Medieval cookery books provide challenges in interpreting their recipes. For instance, they do not specify quantities. Often, they ask you to add spices, without telling you which ones to use. Same goes for meat, where you do not know which animal or what cut to use. Cooking times are non-existent, and you are asked to use your judgement in determining when to stop cooking.
When I first cooked this dish, I was overwhelmed with excitement. I felt like a scientist or an archaeologist rediscovering a long forgotten world. And truly, when I tasted the end result, this dish blew me away, exceeding all expectations. The flavours of saffron, dried fruit, almonds and rose water really give you a sense of medieval Arabia. I hope this recipe reaches the thousands of Middle-Eastern chefs out there, and I would love to see al-sikbaj make the remarkable resurrection that it so deserves. So here it goes, my recipe for al-sikbaj, put together after many hours of reading through medieval cook books and attempting to reach the right balance of ingredients.
Al-Sikbaj – Recipe
600 g lamb shoulder without the bones in 1 inch cubes
3 medium onions, slices
3 medium round eggplants, peeled, quartered then halved, then pricked with a fork
cinnamon, 2 tsp
dried coriander, ground, 4 tsp
apple cider or white wine vinegar, 1/2 cup
honey, 1/2 cup
saffron, a large pinch
5 dried figs, quartered
almond flakes or halves, handful
rose water, 1 tsp
Armenian Basturma on hand made ceramic plate desigend by my friend Sylvia Marciante Green
In my previous entry about my home made sujuk, I discussed the Armenian influence on Lebanese food (read here). Sujuk and basturma are probably the most known of these influences. Basturma is air-dried, spiced beef, with strong flavours of cumin and fenugreek. After the curing and drying process, basturma is served in thin slices, and can be a great sandwich filling along with some cheese. In Lebanon, fried eggs and basturma is a very common dish as is basturma and sujuk pizza.
My recipe using basturma is a slight variant on a popular Lebanese dish, yakhnet fasoulia w rizz. Yaknheh is the Arabic word for stews, fasoulia means beans and rizz (or rozz) means rice. This dish is one of many that mom cooks to perfection, and on a cold winter night, nothing reminds me of her better than eating a plate of yakhneh. The bean stew is usually made with bones and stewing beef or lamb, with cassia bark, garlic, onion and tomato paste. The beans are cooked in the meaty broth where they absorb the flavours, and as they break down and soften, they thicken and enrich the broth.
With a nice fresh pack of basturma in my fridge (and no bones or beef), I was inspired to incorporate this wonderful ingredient and our bean stew recipe into a Lebanese dish similar to the world famous French cassoulet or a Brazilian feijoada. Both dishes seem somehow related to the Lebanese yakhneh but usually use salted, cured pork. Pork does not showcase strongly in the Lebanese cuisine, and salted pork products do not extend past supermarket ham. Basturma is by far more suitable for keeping the cultural identity of this dish intact, and its spicy flavour lends itself beautifully to the beans. Try it and you will be hooked on making yakhneh.
Yakhnet Fasoulia w Rizz b Basturma Recipe
Dry haricot beans – 1 kilo (soak the whole kilo overnight in water)
Basturma – 300 g, thinly sliced then chopped in whatever size suits you
Onions – 3 large, diced
Garlic – 4 cloves, diced
Bird’s eye chili – 3 chills, diced (with seeds for that extra kick)
Tomato paste – 3 tbspn
Cassia bark or cinnamon – 1 stick
Chopped parsley or coriander – 1/2 cup
Salt – to taste