QA with NW Magazine

By | Interviews and Media | One Comment

I don’t think I am on my way to becoming a celebrity in any way. Actually, I think less people know me now than 10 years ago. So I was a bit baffled when NW Magazine contacted me and set me the challenge of answering the 5 questions below. It’s hard answering these kinds of questions, because they always limit you in some way (name the 5 ingredients you will take to your death bed). I guess that’s good though, so let me know if you share my opinions:

What was the first recipe you ever cooked?
I’ve been cooking with my mom ever since I was a child. I remember learning how to make kibbeh, fattouch, hommous and baba ganoush at a very young age. I also remember spending hours going through grains of rice and lentils to remove impurities since grains in Lebanon during the war were of poor quality. The first dish I cooked when I was on my own was lasagne and I cooked it when my parents went to our summer home while I stayed back for a few weeks with my friends. I used what was in the pantry: spaghetti instead of lasagne sheets, powdered milk, frozen mince, onions and mom’s tomato paste. To my 15 year old palate it was superb, and I was hooked.

What is your favourite dish to prepare?
My favourite ingredients are those in season, and so my favourite dishes are in turn seasonal. I don’t usually cook the same dish more than once or twice a year. I like mutton ragout and chicken soup in winter, shish barak or krautwickel in autumn (a new favourite), bbq lamb or prawn and garlic shoot stir fry in spring, fattouch and mom’s fish with tahini in summer

What are your favourite restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner?
I’m not much of a breakfast guy but a croissant from Bourke Street Bakery and a piccolo late from Mecca Espresso would do fine. Ichiban Boshi’s Aburi Chashu-men (blowtorched pork with ramen noodles) for lunch is amazing. Al Aseel at Greenacre does, imho, the best Lebanese in Sydney, and dinner there is always a treat.

If you could have only 5 ingredients to cook with, what would you pick?
Tough one… hmmm… I hate hypothetical questions… Is this for a one off cooking adventure, or 5 ingredients to haunt me forever? If it’s forever, then aged beef, flour, eggs, zaatar, milk (for butter and cheese making) (and maybe sugar, salt, Lebanese spices, tomatoes, olve oil, onions and garlic). I’m assuming water is abundant…

What is one piece of advice you would give to people who are not great cooks but hope to be one day?
Cook food you’ve eaten before, use fresh, quality ingredients, keep it simple and increase the complexity gradually, and finally resist the temptation of cooking Thai food because it will never be as good.

New Banner on The Food Blog

By | The Food Blog | 2 Comments

Back in 2009, I convinced my hugely talented friend Eddie Abd to design a new banner for the blog. I have been a fan of Eddie’s work for a long time and I was so excited she said yes!. Eddie has conceptualised and realised a banner based on memories and impressions we share about food, and I am proud to use her art work on my blog. Please visit Eddie’s blog by clicking here.

So, what do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

Kugelhopf Recipe

By | Recipes | 12 Comments

kugelhopf cake, austrian/alsacian specialty

Kugelhopf: A yeast cake from Alsace, of Austrian origin, containing raisins or currants and cooked in a special high crownlike mould. The word is spelt in various ways (kougelhof, gougelhopf, or kouglof) and is derived from the German Kugel (a ball). It is said that Marie Antoinette’s fondness for this type of dough made such cakes very fashionable. However some authorities consider that it was Careme who popularized the cake in Paris, when he was pastry chef at the Avice. It is said that he was given the recipe by Eugene, head chef to Prince Shwarzenberg, the Austrian ambassador to Napoleon. Others claim that the first pastrycook to make true kugelhopfs in Paris was a man named Georges, who was established in the Rue de Coq in 1840. In Alsace, kugelhopf is eaten at Sunday breakfasts, and traditionally prepared the night before, as it is always better when slightly stale. It goes well with Alsace wines.
Source: Larousse Gastronomique

ceramic kugelhopf molds from Germany

On my trip to Germany last year, I spent a great deal of my time searching for a ceramic kugelhopf mold. But all I could find was metal cake tins that looked the part. But I can get these here in Sydney, and apart from being functional, they had none of the romance. I finally found one in a lovely ceramics shop in Bamberg, and though it is probably not what a baker might use to make industrial strength kugelhopf, form met function and I took it home. I showed it to my lovely host Bertrun, who was surprised as she didn’t know I was after a kugelhopf mould, and insisted on giving me one her mother had given her. So, after many a thank you, I became the proud owner of two fantastic kugelhopf molds. Let us all marvel at their beauty.

 a beautiful view of Bamberg, the source of the mold

Before I even tried this cake, I was always attracted to its unusual, regal figure. I imagined, as a yeast bread, it would resemble a brioche in flavour, or a panettone, and now I can confirm that. I feel it has a much more interesting shape than a brioche, and a better texture than a panettone, and it is a sure crowd pleaser. It does take a while to make but it’s worth it, and the job is made much easier if you have a mixer with a dough hook attachment. The recipe I attempted is from Culinaria France, and I found that they greatly underestimated the ratio of wet and dry ingredients. My tip is to keep some flour aside at the end to add to the mixer if the dough is too runny. It should feel wet, but still maintain an elasticity and body. My method uses the electric mixer with a dough hook. Replace with kneading and use double the time if you don’t have one.

Kugelhopf Recipe (makes 2 large cakes)

Ingredients

  • 4 tbsp/30 ml kirsch (or your favourite spirit, I used rum and brandy)
  • 1 cup/150 g sultanas or currants (more if you love a lot of sultanas)
  • 1 kg plain flour
  • 30 g compressed yeast
  • 2 cups/500 ml milk
  • 1 tbsp/10 g salt
  • 2/3 cup/150 g sugar
  • 5 eggs
  • 3/4 cup/180 g soft butter
  • 2 tbsp almond flakes

try to achieve the texture in this photo when making your kugelhopf

Method

  1. Pour the kirsch over the currants, stir, leave covered for a few hours to soak
  2. Warm half the milk till lukewarm
  3. Prepare the started dough by pouring 300 g flour into the mixer bowl, crumble in the yeast and the cup of lukwarm milk you prepared in step 2. Knead lightly in mixer and leave to prove for 2 hours
  4. Place the dough back in the mixer bowl and top with the remaining milk, 500 g flour, salt, sugar and the eggs and mix for at least 10 minutes, which is very important for the texture of the cake. The loose semi-solid dough should come away from the bowl easily.
  5. Mix in the butter and knead the mixture until it becomes a smooth supple dough
  6. Add the sultanas/currants and work them in until they are evenly distributed in the dough
  7. Grease two cake molds (preferably kugelhopf molds) with butter and sprinkle the almond flakes evenly in them. Fill the mold up to halfway with the dough and leave to prove in a draught-free place
  8. Preheat the oven to 200 C and bake the kougelhopf for around 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the mold.
  9. When the surface of golden brown, remove the came from the oven and leave it to cool on a cakestand. The top will swell to become like a ball, which explains the name :)

The Honest Award – 10 Honest Things About Me

By | awards | 5 Comments

Viviane from The Taste Budz has kindly awarded me The Honest Award. The rules of the award state that we need to list ten honest things about ourselves and then pass the award on to ten other deserving bloggers. Most bloggers I know have already been given this award, so I’ll just stick with listing 10 honest things about myself.

1- I am at a quite advanced stage of hair loss, and though it suits me more than a full head of hair, I am still considering Rogaine

2- Even though I mock and ridicule Lebanese people who think the way to riches (outside of Lebanon) is opening a manakish bakery, I do think it just might work

3- I believe, with no apparent shred of proof, that I am spearheading an avant-garde movement in modern Lebanese cuisine

4- I am insanely in love with my wife Lainy and her 18 week old pregnant belly

5- I’m 29 years old, have studied English Literature at uni, followed by Software Engineering and work as an IT Manager/ Sofware Architect. My programming code always rhymes.

6- I believe food is the ultimate art form as it is the only one that appeals to all our senses simultaneously

7- My version of heaven is a perpetual foraging expedition in Bamberg

8- My star sign tells me that I don’t believe in astrology

9- My ultimate dream is to travel the Levant and write a book about the journey and the food

10- I can’t swallow cucumbers or tomatoes on their own. They must be accompanied with bread, cheese or at least olive oil.

Eating Dandelions – Hindbeh Recipe

By | Foraging, lebanese food, Recipes | 17 Comments


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.


dandelions growing wild in a garden in Portland NSW

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)


half an hour’s worth of dandelion foraging

Hindbeh – Dandelion Recipe

Preparing the Dandelions

  1. When you pick the dandelions, make sure you don’t pick other weeds with them and be careful of insects such as spiders. You should find dandelions grown in lawns and on sidewalks.
  2. Chop the dandelions finely, wash thoroughly in several changes of water and drain. Wrap the leaves in a tea towel and twist the tea towel to drain all the excess water and bitterness.
  3. Taste a dandelion leaf. If it is not too bitter, then it should be good to cook. If it is (and by bitter, I mean BITTER), blanch the dandelions in boiling water and 1/2 a tsp of sodium bicarbonate for 3 to 5 minutes. It’s preferable not to blanch if you can handle the bitterness.

Cooking the Dandelions (Hindbeh)

Ingredients

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)

Method

  1. In a large frypan, heat up the olive oil and fry the onions with a tsp of salt on a gentle heat
  2. When the onions are slightly golden, remove half of them and set aside
  3. Continue to fry the onions, stirring every couple of minutes until they caramelise. Turn the heat down if they are cooking too quickly and keep a watchful eye, as they burn very easily
  4. Once caramelised, remove the onions, and keep the oil in the frypan
  5. Using the same oil, add the half cooked onions you removed earlier and the garlic and fry until the garlic begins to turn golden
  6. Add the dandelion leaf and the remaining salt. It might look like too much in the frypan, but the volume will drop significantly once cooked for a minute or two
  7. Keep cooking, stirring every couple of minutes until most of the moisture in the dandelion has evaporated. The colour should be getting dark, but not burn. The ingredients will begin to stick to the bottom of the pan. Keep cooking for 5 minutes, turn off the heat and add the lemon juice
  8. The dandelion leaf will absorb the liquid quickly. You can now set aside to cool and then refrigerate
  9. Once cool, you can toss in the boiled chickpeas (cold) and the pine nuts. Top with yoghurt and then the caramelised onions and enjoy

Snail Spaghetti – Recipe

By | Recipes, snails | 19 Comments

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.


Snail Spaghetti Recipe

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.

Ingredients
First Preparation

  • Snails (Purged)
  • Salt
  • Lemon peel (wax free lemons)
  • Bay Leaves
  • Onion, halved
  • Peppercorns

For the Pasta

  • The above prepared snails
  • Garlic, finely chopped
  • Chilli, chopped
  • Verjuice
  • Parsley, chopped
  • Olive Oil
  • Butter
  • Spaghetti
  • Salt and Pepper, to taste

Preparation

  1. Wash the snails well in several changes of cold water
  2. Plunge the snails in salted boiling water, removing any froth that rises to the surface
  3. After 5 minutes, drain the snails and boil in more salted water with the lemon peel, onions, bay leaves and peppercorns
  4. Continue cooking for 2 hours, removing any further froth
  5. When the snails are done they should be easy to remove from their shells. Drain the snails and rinse them in fresh boiled water

To make the pasta

  1. Remove the snails from the shells. If your snails are large, you might want to cut them in half. Drain well
  2. Boil your spaghetti in plenty of salted water. When cooked al dente, drain and keep aside
  3. Heat some olive oil and butter in a sauce pan and fry the garlic and chilli with salt
  4. When the garlic is brown, but before it burns, add the snails and fry them on high heat
  5. When the liquid seems to have reduced, add some verjuice on the sides of the sauce pan and allow it to reduce further
  6. Throw your pasta on top of the sauce and stir
  7. Take off the heat and add your chopped parsley and stir
  8. Season to taste and serve hot