Mezze to Milk Tart – Book Review

It took me a few months to get around to read Mezze to Milk Tart, the latest book by Sydney’s own Cecile Yazbek. Now that I’ve finally had a chance to sit down and go through it, I’ll tell you upfront, it’s wonderful. Yazbek, a Lebanese who grew up in the old South Africa (hence the Mezze to Milk Tart), ran a vegetarian cookery school in Sydney and is the author of Olive Trees Around My Table, her memoire about growing up in South Africa under apartheid. Yazbek became a vegetarian early in her youth for political reasons; she couldn’t justify eating meat as the cost of a meal for her family could feed a poor South African family for a month on a plant-based diet. Mezze to Milk Tart is her vegetarian cook book, full of a lifetime of vegetarian recipes.

Regular readers of my blog probably know where I stand with regards to meat eating (I’m for it). So, a book on vegetarian cooking might not seem like the ideal subject for me to be reviewing, given my bias toward an animal-based diet. But Yazbek’s book really appeals to me, for several reasons.

Last October I ran a series of secret dinners, one of which was a vegetarian event. One of the main challenges I wanted to overcome was to showcase the role of “vegetables” in a vegetarian diet, since, as much as I am a supporter of an animal-based diet, I am equally in complete opposition to a grain-based diet. My food had to focus on real vegetables, nuts and plant-based fats, and I believe I did so successfully. Focusing on grains (disregarding their detrimental effects on health) is an easy way out for the vegetarian cook. There are so many wonderful dishes one can make with vegetables without relying on grains, and Yazbek seems to agree. Yazbek’s book is an example of real generosity in vegetarian cookery and for the most part focuses on true vegetables. Think okra, artichokes and eggplants, with recipes so deliciously simple that often the list of ingredients is longer than the cooking method itself. I quite like that. Also, her cooking is richer in legumes than it is in grains, and that makes me happy.

There are also stories between chapters where Yazbek tells us about her life and her food. Read about her journey out to Sydney’s west in search of mafrouki, a traditional Lebanese dessert of semolina, clotted cream and candied orange blossoms. Lebanese story-telling genes are evident. Her stories are almost timeless and folkloric, with wonderfully stereotypical characters described with the skill of a writer, not a celebrity chef.

The book itself is slightly different to what we’ve come to expect from a cookbook. It is in paperback, has more photos of people and places than of food, which makes it lack the glamour people look for in a cook book. But I feel that what it lacks in glamour, it more than makes up for in honesty and content. The writing is wonderful and the recipes are rich. The cuisines Yazbek borrows from are perfect for her topic, where the dishes are not simply trying to replace meat, they are wholeheartedly and generously vegetarian. You can find Mezze and Milk Tart on the Wakefield Press website.

Focusing in for Food Happiness

local pastured eggs

I’m certain a mathematician can work this into a formula, perhaps a beautifully plotted graph that demonstrates in didactic elegance the relation one experiences with recipes and ingredients, with passing time as a factor. Like the rest of my generation, following from milk, I started out eating nothing but Cerelac, a simple, bland sort of food that my mother used to get me onto solids. Soon after came fruit, then rice dishes, vegetables, yoghurt, cheese, meat and the rest. And there was no stopping progress. Retrospectively, Cerelac was my Big Bang moment, a taste experience before which there was nothing, but after which nothing would be the same. Unknown molecules start forming and binding to each other into new recipes and dishes, pushing my personal Food Universe into an ever-expanding state in both breadth and height, giving rise to new experiences.

When you start cooking for yourself, and if you have that kind of obsessive grain within you, you might throw yourself at it whole-heartedly. What was ultimately a nutritional exercise quickly transcends the Get-It-In-Ya experience as you discover that so-called Joy of Cooking. Your one bedroom studio closes in as more and more recipe books pack against the wall and more and more utensils are stacked above the kitchen bench. Your fridge will almost certainly contain foods with exceedingly exotic origins, superbly interesting qualities and utterly unpronounceable names. (While we’re on the subject, how DO you pronounce galangal?). With the ammunition well-stocked, experimentation ensues and with it, the inevitable successes and failures.

To me, that seems to be the era of chaos that precedes universal order. At one point in time, not too long ago, a cookbook mutiny threatened to over-throw my sanity; I had over 50 ingredients in my fridge, the same amount in my pantry and more pots and pans than you can poke a slotted, wooden dessert spoon at. But gradually, things changed. I stopped buying utensils and use a frying pan and a cast iron pot for most of my cooking. Instead of purchasing more cookbooks, I rely on 2 or 3 that I own already and love the most. I make stir-fries with 4 or 5 ingredients instead of 10. My fridge stocks a limited variety of food. It seems my Food Universe has reversed and is now shrinking. And I love it that way. My dinner might be a pastured steak fried in good butter with some hot English mustard on the side. If I am feeling adventurous, some glazed carrots might find their way to the plate. Good quality eggs make a meal, with need for little else. Some good cream mixed in there, and a just-set, custardy omelet is a decidedly brilliant dinner. Dessert need be nothing more than Pepe Saya’s phenomenal mascarpone with some berries on top. Or a slice of good cheese. If the ingredients are of high quality, there’s no need to diversify. Focus on the singular and you will find happiness, that’s my new mantra. Sure, I might not be heading straight back to Cerelac, and perhaps the universe is getting more focused rather than shrinking. Order. There’s a quiet enjoyment to be found in minimalizing a repertoire; a kind of meditative calm, an asserted certainty; and if you look closely enough, an infinity of choice.

How about you? Are you eating more variety than you did a few years ago? Do you find you are happier with more food choice or with less?

 

Roast Bone Marrow with Smoked Eggplant – Recipe

In keeping with yesterday’s theme, here’s another great ingredient, full of fat’s goodness: bone marrow. I saw a documentary a few days ago which showed that eating bone marrow was one of those factors that guarded man’s ancestors from extinction. You see, when food was scarce, and when fierce predators would get all the meat around, our ancestors had an advantage. The lion would go home and leave nothing but bone. Our ancestors were unique among mammals in that they knew how to smash a rock against those bones and extract the nutritious bone marrow. Smashing rocks, a unique evolutionary trait…

As you have probably guessed from the photo, I didn’t smash a rock against the bones. Mine were cut in half by my butcher’s vertical saw. A much more elegant, though less stress-relieving approach, wouldn’t you agree?

The following recipe is my creation. I smoked some eggplants under the grill, mixed in some butter, walnuts, cumin, salt and lemon juice. I topped that with roasted bone marrow, more lemon juice and some olive oil infused with garlic and rosemary. The dish came together beautifully, mostly soft, but with the occasional crunch from the walnuts and fried garlic. I’ll be cooking more bone marrow and trying a few different recipes with it. How about you? Do you eat much bone marrow? What do you think of it?

Roast Bone Marrow with Smoked Eggplants Recipe

For the Garlic and Rosemary Oil: Add 3 tbsp olive oil, 2 cloves of garlic and a sprig of rosemary (de-stemmed) into a pan and heat until it sizzles nicely. Remove from heat and leave aside. The garlic should be come golden and crunchy

For the Eggplants: cut 1 large eggplant in half and roast for half an hour under a hot grill. Make sure it blisters, but doesn’t burn. Scoop out the flesh into a bowl. Add 1 tbsp cumin, 1 tbsp butter and salt and lemon juice to taste. Add a handful or two of chopped walnuts. Taste and adjust seasoning. Keep warm.

For the Bone Marrow: preheat the oven to 170c and roast the bone marrow for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove marrow from bone and keep warm. You can use the bones in stock.

Putting it All Together: In a bowl, spoon some eggplant, top with some bone marrow, squeeze a bit of lemon and add some of the olive oil you prepared earlier, along with some garlic flakes and rosemary sprigs. Enjoy.

The Tradition of Eating Pure Fat

One of the most revered traditional breakfasts in Lebanon is a platter of raw liver, raw lamb muscle meat and raw liyyeh, sheep tail fat. Middle-Eastern sheep are a particular breed with tails that grow to a massive size. I’ve heard it said that up to one quarter of the sheep’s weight could come from its tail. The tail is pure, soft, white fat. For breakfast, along with the raw meat and liver, the liyyeh is sprinkled with salt and pimento and eaten with bread. It’s not for the faint of heart, especially the liver, but the initial reaction subsides when you take the plunge and eat some. I personally find that the flavour of liver, or anything for that matter, is milder when the food is raw.

Raw sheep tail fat is delicious, but, I also really like it barbecued on charcoal. The outside caramelises beautifully, and a bit of salt brings out a sweetness in the fat. It’s not greasy or oily, but rather creamy with a round, buttery mouthfeel. Here in Australia, sheep tail fat isn’t something you can find. My Lebanese butcher tells me that they tried, but failed, to raise Middle-Eastern breeds of sheep in Australia. Something to do with the weather and humidity causes the sheep to get sick… Don’t quote me on that.

So a few days ago, I find myself at AC Butchery in Leichhardt looking at a piece of lardo: cured pig fat. The fat is subcutaneous, which is the soft fat from underneath the skin of the pig (as opposed to visceral fat, which is intramuscular). The fat gets cured with salt. It’s  sometimes flavoured with herbs and sometimes it’s also smoked. I couldn’t resist buying it – $15 a kilo for fat from a free range pig sounded like a financially wise investment. Today, I had a craving for the good old days back in Lebanon. No tail fat for me unfortunately, but the lardo did the trick. The Italians slice the fat thinly and eat it for antipasti, or use it as a topping for bruschetta, among other uses. I tried something else with the fat: seared on a hot pan until it goes slightly crisp and golden, flipped and then served with sauerkraut and hot english mustard. Delicious, and so nutrient and energy dense, I probably won’t have to eat anything else until winter arrives. Maybe I’ll hibernate for the afternoon…

Red meat is blamed for one in 10 early deaths and other fairytales

Doesn’t the photo of that beef look amazing? I just had to say that before I started. I’d love a slice of that.

You have most probably seen this study that just came out showing that eating red meat is going to kill you, eventually. Having read the numerous alarmist articles published on the topic, I thought it is my duty to say something, since so many media outlets have started going crazy for this piece of news. Here’s the link to the article by The Telegraph.

I don’t know how this rubbish is even considered a study. What the researchers did was survey 100,000 people over a period of 28 years, asking them every 4 years about their diet and lifestyle. Asking them? So, the study wasn’t a double blind, laboratory based study? Already, I’m skeptical. Many issues are known to happen with survey studies. Namely, people lie in surveys. They do! I know I have…

OK, but putting that aside. Let’s look at this line from the Telegraph:

Small quantities of processed meat such as bacon, sausages or salami can increase the likelihood of dying early by a fifth, researchers from Harvard School of Medicine found. Eating steak increases the risk of early death by 12%.

 Apart from people on a low-carb diet, I don’t know anyone who eats bacon without pressing it against sugar-laden barbecue sauce slathered on soft slices of bread. Sausages? Again, wrapped in bread. Salami? That comes on top of a pizza, right? So, these people are eating JUNK FOOD. Why is it that the study decided it was the meat that caused “early death”? Why wasn’t it the insulin-spiking bread, vegetable oils, and the ton of soft drinks/sodas/beer that the person likely consumed alongside that pizza? That is a major flaw of such observational science. We see what we choose to see. You can’t infer cause and effect without experimentation. To illustrate what I’m trying to say, I got the following off the Simpsons, the font of all wisdom (source):

After a single bear wandering into town has drawn an over-reaction from the residents of Springfield, Homer stands outside his house and muses, “Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol is working like a charm!”

Lisa sees through his reasoning: “That’s specious reasoning, dad.” Homer, misunderstanding the word “specious”, thanks her for the compliment.

Optimistically, she tries to explain the error in his argument: “By your logic, I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.” Homer is confused: “Hmm; how does it work?” Lisa: “It doesn’t work; it’s just a stupid rock!” Homer: “Uh-huh.” Lisa: “… but I don’t see any tigers around, do you?”
Homer, after a moment’s thought: “Lisa, I want to buy your rock…” 

So, maybe, it was the fact that those people breathed oxygen chronically that caused their death. Or maybe because they were generally unhealthy. The article continues:

Scientists added that people who eat a diet high in red meat were also likely to be generally unhealthier because they were more likely to smoke, be overweight and not exercise.

Okay. So, here we have a bit more of a complete picture. Overweight, nicotine-addicted sedentary people who eat junk food die sooner rather than later. Maybe that should have been the real headline. But then again, if I had read that headline, I would have probably thought, “No shit Sherlock. 28 years of surveys and that’s all you can tell me?” Don’t we all ALREADY KNOW that smokers binging on pizza and Ben & Jerry’s are going to have an early death? Do we really need a study to tell us that?
What really got me excited about this study is that it showed a link between low cholesterol and increased risk of early death. Didn’t we believe the opposite to be true? So, we should eat less cholesterol, even though cholesterol seems to protect us from an early death? Huhh? (That said, I am a firm believer in a) the protective effects of cholesterol, and b) know that dietary cholesterol doesn’t translate to serum cholesterol).
I could go further in-depth about this, but, luckily, someone else has done that for me. Read Zoe Harcomb’s blog post and understand how bad the science really is. If I were you, I would think twice about switching my red meat for whole grains.

 

Cream Cheese Sorbet Recipe

Those of us who take ice cream seriously know the delicate balance of ingredients required. Do it right, and you end up with ice cream, luscious and velvety. Do it wrong and you end up with ice (sans cream). You know what I mean, just a frozen bit of flavoured stuff that you need an icepick to even chip away at the surface.

Ice crystals – that’s what you need to manage in order to avoid having a piece of Antarctica sitting in your freezer. Ice crystals form when you freeze a liquid. The larger the ice crystals, the icier the ice cream. The smaller the ice crystals, the better. The size of ice crystals can be influnced by churning – the quicker a liquid freezes, the smaller the ice crystals – so an ice cream machine is great help. Another piece of the puzzle is the ratio of solids to liquids in your ice cream mixture. Water is the liquid, fat and sugar are the solids. The more solids you have, the softer the ice cream. Try to be healthy and reduce the amount of sugar you have in a recipe and you will attract the wrath of the gods. Of course, there is a whole arsenal of tricks to manage the texture (alcohol and salt lower the freezing point; pectin, salep, cornstarch and gums like xanthan and guar gum can all be used as thickeners), but it feels a bit like cheating.

I no longer use sugar in anything, including my ice creams and go for xylitol instead (which, despite the chemical-sounding name, is a great natural alternative to sugar with a very low glycemic index). Xylitol, however, doesn’t have all the properties of sugar (it doesn’t caramelise, for instance). Since it’s also a bit sweeter, less of it is required when making ice cream, which means ice crystals are larger. The end result just isn’t as satisfying as normal ice cream.

When I saw a recipe for cream cheese sorbet on the Saveur website, I knew I’d hit the jackpot. It was obvious that the huge amount of fat from the cream cheese would certainly result in a sorbet with good texture, with or without sugar. I tried it with xylitol, and, yes, it’s awesome and tastes like a frozen New York cheesecake. If you want to use sugar, go for the recipe on the Saveur website. My adaptation is for a xylitol sweetened sorbet. I buy my xylitol here.

Cream Cheese Sorbet with Xylitol Recipe (adapted from Saveur)

Ingredients

  • 2 packets Philadelphia or your favourite cream cheese (500 grams total), softened to room temperature
  • 1 cup xylitol
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice and equivalent lemon rind
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence

Method

  • Add the xylitol and 1 cup of water to a pot and heat until the xylitol is dissolved
  • Using a wooden spoon, mix the cream cheese until no lumps appear
  • Bit by bit, add the water and xylitol mix, incorporating slowly with a whisk to ensure there are no lumps
  • Add the lemon juice, lemon rind and vanilla essence
  • Churn in your ice machine and freeze for 3 hours or so before you eat it
  • If you don’t have an ice cream machine, I suspect it will still work really well if you put it in the freezer and churn it by hand every hour or so for around 6 or 7 hours

 

On Carbs

Massive Health - Carbs Are Killing You

I like Dr Mercola. Despite him pushing products, I find his advice generally well considered. “Pasta, Not Bacon, Makes You Fat. But How?” is the name of his latest blog entry. It’s a must read. But for those of you who are more visual, or want the abridged version, the above infographic from Massive Health that tells it like it is.

How I lost 24 Kilos and a Recipe for Macadamia Oil Mayonnaise

This blog post may change your life.

Back in April 2010, Amanda from Lamb’s Ears and Honey posted a Facebook link to an article in the New York Times with the title “Is Sugar Toxic”, written by a science researcher called Gary Taubes. Amanda doesn’t know it, but by posting that link, she saved me from almost guaranteed diabetes and heart disease. Thank you Amanda! At the time, I weighed 122kg and had a waist circumference of 122cm, and with those measurements, I was obese. After reading Taubes’ article, I watched the amazing video, “Sugar, The Bitter Truth” by Dr Robert Lustig that discusses the health dangers of eating high amounts of fructose. I also saw that Taubes had written a book entitled “Why We Get Fat: and What to Do About It”. Having always thought that getting fat is all about calories-in/calories-out, I was intrigued to find that there may be another explanation to the problem I had suffered with all my life (having dieted non-stop for 15 years) so I bought Taubes’ book and read it. That book changed my life forever.

Zoom forward to today, my nutritional re-education continues as I weigh 98kg and my waist circumference is 98cm. My diet has switched from one focused on carbohydrates to one that that uses fat for energy. My energy comes from grass-fed and free-range animals, fish, eggs, low-starch vegetables, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, and berries. To a lesser extent I also eat full-fat dairy (cheese, cream and sour cream), bananas and sweet potatoes. I eat around 2700 calories a day, so by any definition, I am not on a diet. Having lost the weight I did without caloric restriction may seem to defy the laws of thermodynamics, but what I found out during my reading is that the well-established adage of calories-in/calories-out is a big fat lie. For almost all people, we gain weight because of hormonal issues. The main way to lose weight is to reduce insulin levels and make our body more receptive to the action of leptin (which, being a hormone discovered only relatively recently may not be known to most doctors).

Having (effortlessly) lost the weight is great, but I realize now that weight was not a problem in its own. It was merely a physiological indicator that my body wasn’t healthy. The health of our body is greatly determined by our diet. Using my newfound way of eating, I have helped many friends with their weight and health issues. My father, a long-term diabetic, now has stellar blood sugar levels. I personally enjoy vastly improved energy levels, no longer have the acne problems that plagued me throughout my life, no longer have plaque, have less/no joint pain, and I feel more clear-headed and happier.

As I continue to learn new things, I try to keep it simple to introduce people I care about to the diet that I know will change their lives for the better. I try to explain that there are 3 things I believe cause most of the health issues we encounter

1- Fructose – this is a sugar found naturally in fruit (and natural sweeteners like agave). It is used in massive quantities as a sweetener for soft drinks, junk food and mass-produced food. Though it doesn’t cause insulin spikes on its own, it does cause fatty liver disease. I highly recommend you watch Dr Lustig’s video “Sugar, The Bitter Truth“ as it will give you all the info you need on why you should avoid fructose.

2- Omega 6/PUFA oils. For years, we have been told to eat margarine as a healthier alternative to butter. Poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) found in margarine, canola, corn oil and other seed/grain/nut oils. These fats are easily prone to oxidation and as we consume them in the large quantities we do, we create an unfavorable ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 (found in fish) oils in our body. The right ratio is crucial for our liver function and the makeup of our cell membranes and many other bodily functions. I have personally cut out all PUFAs (no more margarine, canola, grapeseed, rice bran or vegetable oils) and the fats I eat are either fully saturated (butter, animal fat and coconut oils are saturated and that makes them stable and not prone to oxidation) or mono-unsaturated oils like macadamia or olive oil. I do not fear cholesterol. Cholesterol is a healthy, healing substance and is largely misunderstood. I suggest you read Gary Taubes’ life changing book, Why We Get Fat: and What to Do About It to re-educate yourself on the real science of fat.

3- Grains – It amazes me to see a diabetic being prescribed a diet high in complex carbs and whole grains and low in fat! Seriously? Diabetics have a problem with blood glucose and insulin. Why are they being fed food that will turn into sugar in the body at all? My diabetic father made the switch and only gets his carbs from leafy greens and non-starchy vegetables. The rest of his diet is protein and fat based and his blood sugar levels are now AMAZING. If you are not diabetic, there are still plenty of compelling reasons why grains are not a good idea for you. Grains increase gut permeability (they penetrate the gut wall and allow dangerous material in our gut to leach into our blood stream which leads to chronic inflammation) to grains’ anti-nutrient properties (which depletes the body of vitamins and minerals). People with acid reflux, coeliac or autoimmune diseases can reverse or control their condition by eliminating grains. For more details on the dangers of wheat and grain, and the amazing health benefits to be gained by eliminating them, read Dr William Davis’ book Wheat Belly.

I am not giving anyone medical advice. I firmly believe that health is a journey and that people need to make their own decisions on where they want to go. What is clear to me is that a carbohydrate centric, fat fearing diet is not the answer. Read through the links and books I suggest. You’ll feel like Alice going down the rabbit hole. If you decide that you are convinced and want to follow the advice in these websites and books, let me know. I’d love to hear from you and to learn about your journey.

When you are convinced and want to start straight away, here’s a great recipe to help kick-start things. Macadamia Oil Mayonnaise. When I stopped eating oils rich in Omega 6, I found that I can no longer eat mayo. All commercial mayo is made with either canola or soybean oil and that’s just poison. Olive oil doesn’t make good mayonnaise – the flavour is too strong and bitter. Macadamia oil, on the other hand, is a wonderfully aromatic oil with a beautiful buttery texture and a heady aroma. It’s not a neutral oil (because it’s not chemically processed unlike vegetable and seed oils). This delicious mayonnaise takes 1 minute to make, is high in monounsaturated fat from the macadamia oil and saturated fat from the eggs, and, yes, it’s SUPER-HEALTHY! Just don’t eat the bread.

Macadamia Oil Mayonnaise Recipe:

Ingredients

  • 2 egg yolks (if you are worried about bacteria, simply pasteurise the whole eggs by keeping them at 63 degrees C water for 5 minutes)
  • 1.5 cup macadamia oil
  • 2 tsp dijon mustard
  • 2 tsp apple cider vinegar
  • salt (to taste) – use real salt like Celtic Sea Salt.
  • lemon juice

Method

  1. Put the egg and mustard in an upright blender and whiz it up.
  2. Add the oil (shouldn’t take more than 20 to 30 seconds) from the top opening until the mixture thickens.
  3. Add apple cider vinegar and salt
  4. Add more oil if thicker mayonnaise is needed
  5. The process should take 1 minute or less
  6. Once done, you can adjust the salt and lemon juice. Heck, you can even add more mustard if you want. Go crazy!

Resources

There are many amazing resources out there to find out more about this diet. I owe a huge debt and thank you to Jimmy Moore and his super-human efforts in getting the word out there and his inspirational podcasts. Mark’s Daily Apple, Robb Wolf and Chris Kresser are an absolute must. Both Dr Kurt Harris and Dr Jack Kruse are medical doctors that have dared to think outside the box and their websites are invaluable resources to my life-style. I also recently started exercising using Drew Baye‘s methods and have seen unbelievable results in strength, endurance and muscle building.
Disclaimer: I am not giving medical advice. I am simply sharing my story with you. You make your own decisions, and I recommend that you discuss changes in your diet and lifestyle with your medical doctor. I do suggest you find a doctor who is up-to-date, will listen to you and is open minded to guide you through your journey. 
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