Feed the Hommous – Chickpeas, the Versatile Bean

The chickpea plant, beautiful citrusy pods holding the bean

OK. So let’s set a few things straight here. Hommous (also spelled hummus or hommos) , is not a dish, and under no circumstance should it be an ingredient of a kebab. In fact, hommous is the Lebanese and Arabic word for chickpeas. The chickpea dip known the world over is what we the Lebanese call hommous b tahini. This name tells us that the chickpea dish is made with tahini. Chickpeas are eaten fresh (green) or dried (soaked and boiled). You can also buy the canned variety, but it is much cheaper and tastier if you soak and then boil them yourself. On its own, the chickpea is quite bland, but its merit comes from its ability to carry flavours and also from its texture. This texture works perfectly when blended with another Lebanese staple, tahini.

Baleelah: boiled chickpeas, aioli (yes we have that too), cumin and pine nuts, amazing!

Now tahini holds another point of contention. The product is the same whether it is spelled tahini or tahina. The word tahini itself denotes something that has been crushed, in this case, sesame seeds. The process is similar to making peanut butter, but the sesame seeds themselves are more oily and fragrant than peanuts, and crushing them results in a paste that is essential to the Lebanese cuisine, where it is used in more ways than you can imagine.

Fatteh: boiled chickpeas, garlic, yoghurt, olive oil, pine nuts on toasted Lebanese bread

But back to chickpeas, having just returned from Lebanon, I was reminded of the versatility of the hommous bean itself and the importance it holds in our cuisine. During the trip, I had more than 10 dishes where chickpeas were a central ingredient, and at least 4 where they were pretty much the only ingredient other than the sauce and spices used alongside. I remembered how we used to buy bunches of green (fresh) chickpeas and spend hours chatting, shelling and eating. Somewhat like peas, a good green chickpea should be had within hours of being picked, otherwise it gets chalky. Of all the great recipes for chickpeas, I thought you would most benefit from making the following dish.

Hommous b Tahini

Hommous b Tahini (Chickpeas in Tahini Sauce) Recipe

The most common chickpea dish known to man (Indian curries aside), hummous b tahini is often murdered at the hands of chefs and home cooks alike. It is at its finest when it is super smooth, perfectly balanced with tahini and lemon juice, and with just enough garlic. A Lebanese mother would never measure the ingredients and give out a recipe, as it is made with constant tasting of the ingredients to ensure the right balance is achieved. Here is an “algorithm” for making hommous b tahini, with tips to ensure the right consistency:

1- Soak chickpeas overnight with a spoon or two of sodium bicarbonate
2- Boil the hell out of the chickpeas. You want to be able to turn it into mush by simply pressing on the grain between your index and thumb
3- Drain but keep the cooking liquid as you will need it
4- Put in a food processor with no other liquid and blend.
5- If the food processor is not blending properly, add tiny amounts of cooking water, and I mean by the tablespoon just to get it going
6- Keep blending until very smooth. If you put too much liquid, it will not get smooth enough, and remain yucky and grainy
7- Add garlic, salt and lemon juice, blend again and adjust to taste.
8- Add tahini paste (a bit at a time), blend and taste.
9- Tahini will make the dip seize up, so add a bit of cooking liquid (or lemon juice if it needs it) to loosen it all up, but not too much. It should be be thick and creamy, not liquidy in any way. Have a look at how it holds its grooves in the picture above.
10- Adjust garlic, salt and lemon juice, plate up, make a sort of well in the middle and fill it with good olive oil! Huzzah!

Wild Blackberry and Lemon Zest Jam

fresh picked wild blackberries

Beyond Nurnberg’s Walls
Is a walnut tree
And a plum that neighbours

A blackberry

Whose fruit lie sweet

Amongst the thorns

A reminder for history
Which still yet mourns

That joy can come

From where there is pain
And though winter’s long
There’ll be spring again

This blog may not be the best venue where a budding young poet such as myself should be expressing himself, but I could not help but share my feelings when visiting Nurnberg for my brother’s wedding. As it once was the centre of Nazi Germany, I don’t want to delve into the history of this beautiful city, since poetry, politics and pastries don’t mix. Instead, I just want to encourage you to go there, when it’s blackberry season.

wild blackberry and lemon zest jam with German bread

As my poem suggests, a bike path led me to the outskirts of the city, where I happened upon a wild blackberry bush. The berries were sweet and just slightly sour, bursting with color and flavour. After having my fill, and more, of fresh blackberries, I decided to make some blackberry jam, as a gift that I would leave to my kind hosts.


For this recipe, I used jam sugar, which is used in the ratio of 3 parts fruit to 1 part sugar. By using jam sugar, you can substantially cut down the amount of sugar you need for jam, resulting in a fruitier, healthier jam. The added pectin in the sugar allows the jam to set more quickly, so you do not need to overcook the fruit. This means the fruit flavour is not killed by heat or excess sugar. However, I don’t think jam with this little sugar lasts too long, but I can’t tell you how long it will store, as mine disappears very quickly.

600 g Blackberries
200 g Jam sugar
Juice and rind of 1 lemon

Put a plate in the freezer. Crush blackberries and stir with sugar and lemon rind in a pot and place on medium heat. You can add lemon juice if you feel it needs it, but tate it first. Crushing also becomes easier when the berries get warmer. Bring to boil, stirring the mixture. After around 10 minutes, get that plate out of the freezer and put a spoon of the jam on the plate. This is a good trick to see if the jam has set. If the jam doesn’t appear runny, and you can draw a clean line with your finger across the jam, it’s all good and ready. Pour into your sanitised jars, and the jam is ready to eat once the jars cool down.

Chili and Garlic Okra with Pomegranate Molasses – Recipe

Chili and Garlic Okra with Coriander and Pomegranate Molasses

There are simple pleasures in life. Falling asleep in a garden, taking your shoes off after a long day at work, hugging a loved one… To me, there is many a simple pleasure to be had with food, but after a visit that has been long overdue to my homeland, Lebanon, I have one more to add to that list: making food from the produce in the garden that fed your parents and grandparents. Fresh, seasonal food that is bound to your history and forms part of your identity.

Stunningly beautiful okra flower and fruit

In anticipation of the return of his three sons (2 in Australia and 1 in America), dad made sure the garden is abundant with produce. And for days, mom has been holding off picking the okra so that we could pick it ourselves. Okra is one of those vegetables. You know what I’m talking about. You either love it, or you hate it. Cooked poorly, the slimy sludge oozes into the dish, turning it into a textural monster. But mom cooks nothing poorly, and the secret she tells me is to deep fry the Okra fruit (yes, it is a fruit), which eliminates the slimy liquid.

the day’s bounty of Okra fruit

Mom usually makes an okra stew with meat and tomatoes. But I wanted to do something a bit different, so we made both dishes. My recipe is so simple, that it does not need measurement. Simply deep fry some okra that has been cleaned like you see in the picture (get rid of the stem) and in a separate pan, fry some chopped garlic and chili. When the garlic is golden and crunchy, mix and cover the okra with the garlic and chili. Dish up in your serving plate and top with freshly chopped coriander and fruity, citrusy pomegranate molasses. This is a great mezze dish, so eat it with your fingers. No forks and knives, please…

Sydney International Food Festival Secret Dinners


Join three of Sydney’s food bloggers for a four-course dinner somewhere in Sydney. The Food Blog, Pikelet and Pie and Forque share the food and seasonal produce they love. Secret dinners are based on a unique concept that creates a different, more intimate dynamic between the hosts, guests and venue. The diners share a meal with friends and strangers somewhere known to them only hours before the event.

Cost: $65, BYO wine to share
When: Sat Oct 24
Where: that’s… a secret
To Book: Send an email with your name, phone number and number of guests (maximum 4, or 2 per SMH subscriber) to secretdinner@thefoodblog.com.au. Spots are limited and your reservation will be confirmed via return email.

Results from The SMH Good Food Guide 2010 Awards

Update: for the 2011 SMH Good Food Guide Awards results, click here

I just came back from the SMH’s Good Food Guide 2010 awards. Great night, but more on that later. Just thought you would enjoy reading about the results, who won what, etc… so here it goes:

3 Chef’s Hats winners:
Bilson’s, est., Marque, Pier, Quay, Tetsuya’s

2 Chef’s Hats winners:
Aria, Assiette, Becasse, Bentley Restaurant & Bar, Berowra Waters Inn, Bistro Ortolan, Buon Ricordo, Claude’s (shock horror!), Guillaume at Bennelong, Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, Lucio’s, Pilu at Freshwater, Restaurant Balzac, Rockpool, Rockpool Bar & Grill, Sean’s Panaroma, Universal

1 Chef’s Hats Winners:
Altitude, Astral, Azuma, The Bather’s Pavilion Restaurant, Bird Cow Fish, Bistro Moncur, Bistrode, Blancharu, The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay, Fish Face, Flying Fish, Forty One, Four in Hand Dining Room, Foveaux Restaurant + Bar, Galileo, Jonah’s, L’etoile, Longrain, Oscillate Wildly, Otto Ristorante, Pendolino, Restaurant Arras, Sailors Thai Restaurant, Sepia, Yoshii


2 Chef’s Hats Winners:
Darley’s (Katoomba), Rock (Pokolbin)

1 Chef’s Hat Winner:
Bacchus (Newcastle), Bamboo (Casuarina Beach), Bells at Killcare (Killcare Heights), Bistro Molines (Mount View), Caveau (Wollongong), Fins (South Kingscliff), Journeyman (Bowral), Katers (Sutton Forest), Lochiel House (Kurrajong Heights), Lolli Redini (Orange), Neila (Cowra), No. 2 Oak Street (Bellingen), The Old George & Dragon (East Maitland), Ottoman Cuisine (Barton), Pacific Dining Room (Byron Bay), Restaurant Como (Blaxland), Restaurant II (Newcastle), Satiate (Bangalow), sourcedining (Albury), Tonic (Milthorpe), Vulcans (Blackheath), Waters Edge (Parkes), Zest (Nelson Bay)


Vittoria Coffee Restaurant of the Year
Quay, Circular Quay

Chef of the Year
Mark Best of Marque, Surry Hills

Best New Restaurant
Rockpool Bar & Grill, Sydney

Best Regional Restaurant
Darley’s Katoomba

The Star City Award for Professional Excellence
Peter Bowyer of Sailor’s Thai

They SMH Silver Service Award
Rachel McNabb of Restaurant Como, Blaxland

Silver Anniversary Stayer Award
Beppi’s, East Maitland

Sommelier of the Year
Franck Moreau of Merivale

Brown Brothers Wine List of the Year
Pilu at Freshwater

Small Wine List of the Year
Bistrode, Surry Hills

Regional Wine List of the Year
Union Bank, Orange

The Josephine Pignolet Best Young Chef
Mitchell Orr of Sepia

Vittoria Legend Award
Mr John (John Hemmes) of Merrivale

Sydney Fish Markets Best Seafood Restaurant
Pier, Rose Bay

Good Food Guide Sustainability Award
Billy Kwong, Surry Hills

Editor’s Picks

Favourite Wine Bar – Ash St Cellar
Favourite Global Menu – Universal
Favourite Asian – Ju-Rin
Favourite Global Gem – Din Tai Fung
Favourite Bargain – Friday Lunch at Marque
Favourite Extravagance – Anything from Adriano Zumbo’s Cafe Chocolat (and pattisserie)
Favourite Cafe – Cafe Deus
Favourite Sushi – Yoshii

Foraging Bamberg

a meadow in Bamberg

If you’ve read my earlier post, you would know I am currently in Germany attending my brother’s wedding. This is my first trip to Germany, and having been here in Nurnberg for around 10 days now, it’s difficult to imagine leaving. I am not sure it is the travellers syndrome, where you like somewhere more than home because you are simply care free, away from your stressful job and incessant phone calls from Citibank’s Mumbai call centre asking you to pay a bill you paid 4 months ago, getting assured every time by the manager that they will fix the problem. Though, I’m sure that helps.

old fence

But there is something tangibly good about this place, something peaceful and green. Endless meadows of garlic, cabbage, wheat, corn, lettuce and asparagus in rich dark soil create a harmony of colors in perfect alignment, and the sight of farmers picking their crops gives me intense joy. It could be reminiscent of my childhood, but things were never this peaceful, and the Lebanese never planted this much cabbage.

view of forest

So I find myself travelling around 70 km to the World Heritage listed city of Bamberg, in order to attend Johanna’s dad’s birthday. Bamberg is stunningly beautiful, the Franconian Rome where fascinating churches line the many surrounding hills, and the town is crossed by the river Regnitz as it makes its way to the Main. And did I mention it is home to 10 local breweries? Johanna’s family lives in an eco village on the outskirts of the city and right behind their house is a path that leads you along one of the most pleasurable walks you will ever experience, a road full of fruits, nuts and berries. This wealth of wild food makes it very different to the Australian bush. I could write a small novel about how happy this place makes me feel, and how foraging through the path brings me closer to inner peace. But as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so enjoy.

wild strawberries





more hazelnuts


more blackberries

the fruits of my labour, mirrabellas (yellow and red), rose hip, apples, plums, blackberries and elderberries

The Silence of Travel

Dinner Time at the Hartmann’s

I’ve packed my bags and left to Nurnberg, Germany. My brother is getting married, and I’ve come to take part of it all. I’m not sure I want to spend much time behind my laptop, with all the fun stuff going around, so my posts will most probably be brief. But, I feel a few photos are in order.

eine normale bretzel bitte

The Food Blog’s Secret Dinner @ Element Bistro

Young Organic Lamb Shish Barak

Saturday 25th July 2009. Driving down to Element Bistro, Lainy and I stop past Lili’s to pick her up. Lili has prepared the dessert for the evening, and the last time we taste tested it, she wasn’t happy. This time though, she has used a different technique, and the chocolate and orange cake was supposedly richer and more moist, she assured me. But my anxiety is taking over me. My heart is running on high speed, each beat amplifying the smallest of concerns into catastrophic proportions. My biggest fear as we keep driving is the venue. I had not spoken to the owner Matt Barnett since Monday, and I do not have his mobile phone number. As I get no answer when I ring the restaurant’s land line, my heart pounds even harder, and I get vivid hallucinations of thirty two secret diners stranded in front of a closed door.

March 17th 2009. I am sitting at work flipping through Good Living in the Tuesday edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, and am totally consumed by an article about secret dinners. What grabs me is not the style of writing, or the experience of the author, but rather the concept. Secret dinners. People gathering secretly to dine, brought together by a singular cause or idea shared over a meal in a location known only to them. The author traces back the origins to the days of alcohol prohibition in the United States, but I feel its roots go further back, and that the current form is a reshaped ideological Last Supper.

Over the next few weeks, the idea brews in my head and becomes all consuming. Could I do it? Take over a venue for a night and see firsthand what it’s like to be a real life chef? Of course I can! In fact, it’s what I have to do.

Eddie as Front of House

Wednesday 27th May 2009. Life has caught up with me, and the idea of a secret dinner is way behind, but like all great ideas, it fights its way back and I find myself posting a blog entry openly inviting people to register for my secret dinner to be held on July 25th. The night was to be inspired from the Mediterranean and would focus on locally sourced produce, in the hope of introducing people to the wealth they have at their doorstep. I swiftly set my facebook status to “come to my secret dinner party” and low and behold, people are actually interested! I had decided that I would keep the number low. Twenty was a nice even number, and seemed perfectly reasonable, but within about four hours, around eighteen people had already booked and I still had not finished going through my emails. This was becoming scary, and the gracious Lebanese host in me could not say no. One very interesting reply came from Lili. I hadn’t actually seen her for around three years, but for a few months, during my Newtown years, Lili had been a good friend, and as I remember, a trained chef.

Me and Lili – The Cook and the Chef

Lili’s first message expressed interest in the dinner, but her second message went like this:

Bwahahaha – I just realised that ‘The Food Blog’ was you. Wonderful!
Me too, by the way: www.pikeletandpie.com

I click on the link, and discover a great treat. Food blogs can be very frustrating, with many of them stating boring facts with poor use of the language, giving little insight. But Lili’s blog was different – fun, informative, well written with no spelling or grammar mistakes, and most of all, it really sounded like her, honest and talented. Lili had to be recruited. Luckily though, she was easy enough to convince, and I had my pastry chef problem sorted.

The Introductory Speech: Welcome to the Secret Dinner

For the next recruit, I didn’t have to think hard. Trish has been a friend for years, and I’ve hardly seen a young person so enthusiastic about food or good produce. Over the years, Trish had worked at many a fine establishment. We met when she was working at Campos Coffee in Newtown, and afterwards she moved to The Cheese Room in GPO, and then to the Central Baking Depot. Trish was a bread making wizard and was about to embark on a six week foodie European journey. We agreed that she will be cooking one of the courses, to be decided when she came back.

After a big mess with the City of Sydney wanting me to provide public liability insurance to allow Channel Nine to film (they eventually pulled out, so I won’t go into that), I had to drop the booking I had made with the Redfern Town Hall and find an alternate venue. I needed somewhere that was capable of holding the number of people booked, somewhere that had a kitchen, and somewhere that would not be in use on a Saturday night. A persistent voice inside pushed me to contact Element Bistro. This was a small intimate venue, below the street level on King Street in the CBD. The ambiance was perfect for the occasion, and I had experienced many fantastic meals there. The chef was a true talent, dishing out honest, authentic French bistro style food in the ex Merrony site. Best of all, they did not open on Saturdays. So I send an email, a phone call being a bit too embarrassing (where’s my courage?), explaining the situation, and thankfully after a brief meeting , chef/owner Matt Barnett accepts to hire out the venue, and to cook one of the dishes. Finally, all the pieces are in place.

Trish’s Meditarranean Cheese Journey

The menu is set. Trish would be making a Mediterranean cheese journey. A trio of local fresh cheese based dishes inspired from Italy, Greece and Lebanon. The first would be buffalo mozzarella with tomato and oregano, then buffalo feta on a potato pancake with fennel and orange, and finally labneh (Lebanese yoghurt cheese) with roasted walnuts and beetroot and a honey vinegar drizzle.

Young Organic Lamb Shish Barak

My two dishes are Lebanese in origin. First is my own recipe for shish barak consisting of spiced lamb dumplings with a cooked garlic and yoghurt sauce flavoured with coriander and served with silver beet. The second dish is moghrabbiyeh, a Lebanese variant of couscous which I would serve with chickpeas, chicken, black pudding, caramelised onions and a sticky, heavily reduced chicken stock and gewürztraminer, made rich with burnt sugar and butter and gently spiced with star anise and caraway.

Chicken and Black Pudding Moghrabbiyeh

Matt’s dish is a fillet of beef wrapped around bone marrow and cavolo nero, served with sauce soubise and a potato and thyme croquette and a stocky, flavoursome jus. This would be followed by Lili’s dessert of chocolate and orange cake, topped with an orange blossom panna cotta, pine nut praline and candied orange blossoms.

Matt Barnett’s (Element Bistro) Beef and Bone Marrow with Sauce Soubise and Potato and Thyme Croquette

Saturday 25th July 2009 – Secret Dinner Day

3:00 PM: The message is sent to the secret diners, the location is exposed
3:30 PM: I’m picking up Lili and heading to the venue, anxious and nervous. Why can’t people drive properly? And why isn’t Matt answering? Will he be there?
3:35 PM: Matt answers the phone! Praise the Lord! Why am I so impatient? Great relief, but is the sauce container in the boot secure?
4:00 PM: Arrive at Element Bistro and unload the food. The kitchen is ready and Matt is fully prepared. We start prepping. Lainy and Eddie start readying the tables.
5:00 PM: Trish arrives. It’s not like her to be late and she is slightly under prepared. She is nervous as she had been visiting sick relatives, and feels she is running behind. We gather our thoughts and start helping her out. Luckily, the dishes track well on time.
7:00 PM: People start walking through the door. All my nervousness disappears for some reason and I am totally calm. Lainy and Eddie are playing front of house for the evening and help the guests with wine and seating.
7:30 PM: Most of the guests are there and it’s time to get the show on the road.

Lili’s Chocolate and Orange Tile with Orange Blossom Panna Cotta

Trish, Lili, Matt and I leave the kitchen briefly to welcome everyone. The evening starts with a local olive oil tasting, and then the dishes start coming out. I manage to sneak out between courses, firstly to introduce the dishes and the chefs, and then to chat to everyone. The dishes are going down a storm and everyone is blown away by the new flavours and textures they are experiencing. From Trish’s wonderful cheeses, to the gently spiced lamb dumplings in yoghurt sauce, followed by the full flavoured chicken and black pudding moghrabbiyeh, Matt’s heavenly tender beef with rich bone marrow and sweet, creamy soubise, that fragrant potato and thyme croquette, and Lili’s decadence of chocolate and orange cake topped with the sexy panna cotta and pine nut praline, a revelation in harmony. Everything works, and works beautifully.

I can’t explain what this experience has meant to me. In fact, I am still having sleepless nights, my mind buzzing with joy and excitement, and I haven’t fully been able to assimilate all the feelings it has instilled. What I do know is that we achieved something special, something most people have not experienced, and that we have been able to share the joy food brings us with people who absolutely loved it. I also know that it felt right cooking in that kitchen.

Element Bistro
163 King St Sydney 2000 NSW
Tel: (02) 9231 0013
Fax: (02) 9232 8447
Web: www.elementbistro.com.au

Lili Roby: www.pikeletandpie.com
Patricia Lathourakis: www.forque.com.au
Matt Barnett: Element Bistro

Chicken – John Meredith, Thirlmere Poultry, Supplier Vic’s Meats
Lamb – Organic Lamb from Young NSW, Supplier Dulwich Hill Gourmet Butcher
Black Pudding – Eumundi Smokehouse, Dulwich Hill
Beef – Banksia Beef
Cream – Green Valley Dairy Picton, Eveleigh Markets
Oranges – Eveleigh Markets, locally grown
Wine for Chicken Sauce – 2007 Robert Stein Gewurztraminer Mudgee
Eggs – Egganic, Eveleigh Markets
Buffalo feta and Buffalo mozzarella – Vanella QLD
LabnehGrampa’s Dairy
Trish’s Olive Oil: Rich Glen Olive VIC (to order, contact Trish on plathourakis(at)gmail.com)
My Olive Oil: Kiewa Estate Traditionally Pressed Verdale, Eveleigh Markets

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