Yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald included this month’s copy of the(sydney)magazine, and I’m extremely excited to see my own contribution in there. The article is a short story on a trip I took to Gaziantep, a city in south-eastern Anatolia in Turkey. I talk of my journey through the city streets in search of kebabs and pistachio desserts, and the interesting encounters I had during my brief stay there. Click on the image above to have a read and let me know what you think.
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.
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?
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.
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…
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%.
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…”
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.