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

The Rebirth of Lebanon

By | lebanese food, lebanon food | 4 Comments


View of the Mediterranean from Byblos, with Roman ruins in the forefront, followed by the recognisable heritage Lebanese home overlooking the water (source, The New York Times)

Though this entry is somewhat unrelated to food, it does not stray far from the general theme of this blog, which revolves around my Lebanon. As a phoenix is reborn from the ashes of its monumental fire, my Lebanon is getting its own rebirth. In 2009, The New York Times deservedly voted Beirut as the number one tourist destination in the world. The article mentioned the Four Seasons Hotel Beirut, Le Gray as the forces of change in Lebanon’s culinary scene. For traditional Lebanese, the mention went to Al Ajami restaurant and Hussein Hadid’s Kitchen.

More recently, Jbeil (Byblos) was the subject matter in an article in The New York Times as being the Cannes of the Middle East, in contrast to the saying Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East. I really enjoyed that article not the least because I actually grew up in Jbeil (and went to school in Monsif, if you must know), despite the focus being on one of my least favourite Lebanese trait, which is the exorbitant show of wealth. Having just returned from Lebanon this year, I can confirm the Jbeil is the place to be. The council has done wonders in creating a tasteful city, and the beaches are fantastic, though mostly privatised and almost unaffordable to locals. Jbeil imparts the visitor with a great sense of history and coupled with a unique tidy, civilised laid-backedness. It has everything Beirut doesn’t, and more. By more I mean a chicken shawarma from el Rock followed by a fruit cocktail from el Addoom. Oh my God!

The Jbeil article mentions the following restaurants:

Bab El Mina
Mother
Pierre & Friends
Locanda a la Granda (mentioned as the best restaurant in town)

Zaatar Ice Cream – Bouza 3a Zaatar

By | ice cream, lebanese food, Recipes | 10 Comments


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…


Grandizer, making a stand in Nice and a selection of French ice creams

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!


A bowl of Lebanese zaatar with sumac and toasted sesame seeds

Zaatar Ice Cream Recipe

Ingredients

  • 300ml thick cream
  • 300ml milk
  • 1 vanilla bean, split
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 1 tbsp dried zaatar (thyme)
  • 3 tbsp toasted sesame seeds (optional)

Method

  1. Place the cream and milk in a saucepan. Bring to the boil, then turn off the heat, mix in the zaatar and set aside for 10 minutes to infuse.
  2. Place the egg yolks, sugar and vanilla extract in the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat until pale.
  3. Strain the milk to remove the zaatar
  4. Carefully pour the milk over the eggs, then return to a clean saucepan.
  5. Cook over low heat, continuously stirring, for about five minutes until it is slightly thickened and coats the back of a wooden spoon.
  6. Set aside to cool, then refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  7. Place custard in a plastic container in the freezer until frozen at the edges. Remove from freezer. Beat with an electric beater. Re-freeze. Repeat this process two more times. Add the sesame seeds in the last time you beat the ice cream(Alternatively, churn in an ice-cream machine according to the manufacturer’s directions and add the sesame seeds as the ice cream is beginning to freeze)

Eggs and Sumac in Pottery – A Lebanese Breakfast

By | lebanese breakfast, lebanese food, Recipes | 7 Comments


Eggs and Sumac with yoghurt

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.


A jar of sumac

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.

Mighli – A Guilt Free Lebanese Christmas Pudding

By | dessert, lebanese food, Recipes | 6 Comments

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…

Mighli Recipe

Ingredients
Water – 6 cups
Sugar – 1 cup
Rice Flour (Fine) – 1 cup
Cinnamon – 2 tsp
Aniseed – 1 tsp
Caraway – 3 tsp

Garnish
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

Method

  1. Boil 3 cups of water
  2. Add sugar and spices and mix until the sugar dissolves
  3. Separately mix the rice flour with the remaining 3 cups of water making sure there are no lumps
  4. Add rice flour slurry to the boiling water
  5. Bring up to the boil then reduce the heat to medium
  6. Continuously stir with a wooden spoon
  7. The mixture will eventually become quite thick. This should take around 40 minutes or so
  8. When sufficiently thick (around twice the thickness of custard), turn the heat off and put in a large serving dish or individual ramekins
  9. Wait until cool then refrigerate

Assembly

  1. Peel and drain the pistachios
  2. Drain the almonds
  3. Garnish the ramekins or serving dish with the nuts/raisins/coconut
  4. Serve cold

Sfouf Recipe – A Lebanese Christmas Cake

By | lebanese food, Recipes | 7 Comments


Sfouf – Lebanese tumeric and aniseed cake

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.


how good does the cake looks with those lovely golden almonds?

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)


The dry ingredients will result in a mild flavour of spice and an awesome yellow colour

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp tahini
  • 2 cups medium coarse semolina
  • 1.25 cups white flour
  • 1.5 cups caster sugar
  • 3/4 cup butter (room temp)
  • 1.5 cups milk
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp tumeric
  • 1/2 tsp aniseed (ground)
  • pine nuts, sesame seeds OR almonds to garnish

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 200C
  2. Mix the flour, semolina, baking powder, tumeric and aniseed in a mixing bowl
  3. Cube the butter and use the tips of your fingers to thoroughly incorporate into the flour and spice mix. The mixture will not appear too yellow just yet
  4. Melt the sugar in the cold milk
  5. Add the milk and sugar to the flour, mix and incorporate thoroughly with a spoon. The yellow colour will now come through brilliantly
  6. Use the tahini to butter your cake tin
  7. Pour the cake mix into the cake tin and make sure the surface is flat
  8. Add your garnish of choice. Sesame seeds can be sprinkled, but pine nuts or almonds need to be placed in an orderly fashion ladies and gentlemen
  9. Bake the cake for around 30 or 40 minutes (depending on the thickness).
  10. Test by inserting a skewer and checking if it comes out clean
  11. When done, turn off the oven but put the cake under a hot grill for a minute to make the surface nice and golden. Keep an eye on it, or else it might burn
  12. Wait for the cake to cool down (or slightly warm) to serve
  13. Enjoy!