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Syria


Moutabal’s no good without something to scoop it up with…..

Although pita breads work for this, it’s better to seek out a more traditional middle eastern flat bread such as lavash often available in larger supermarkets. Cut into triangles and rub with olive or nut oil. Dust with a few teaspoonfuls of fragrant zaatar and roast for a max of ten minutes until golden and crispy. Otherwise soft tortilla wraps could work well as an alternative. Just lay out flat, cut into pieces and oven bake. Let cool and serve with dips and drinks.



In Paris variations of ‘caviar d’aubergine’ are becoming ubiquitous. Any kind of aubergine dip is pretty amazing so the more the merrier. Traveling around Lebanon and Jordan recently meant a lot of it was consumed so I figured it was time to start working out what all the different mezze were and how they could be made at home.  The cuisine of the Levant is a favourite of mine. Its nutty, spicy flavours along with an approach to eating that is truly Mediterranean being wonderfully family oriented lazy, lengthy grazing.

A middle eastern favourite dished up  in one way or another from Greece to Israel to Beirut, moutabal is most often served as one of many cold mezze. Commonly referred to as Baba ghanoush, in Syria and Jordan this is almost always called moutabal and baba ghanoush is an aubergine salad not the smoky creamy sesame infused dip that is moutabal. In most other middle eastern countries it’s baba ghanoush. Many menus will have both listed to add to the confusion. Baba ghanoush is actually a salad of roasted aubergine flesh with lemon juice , tomato, hot peppers, garlic and onion.

The key to the moutabal flavour is  chargrilling the aubergines until the skin is about to fall off – otherwise you miss the amazing smoky flavour characteristic of this staple mezze. Nonetheless even oven roasting the aubergines will get you a garlic spiked dip that’s a great alternative to cheese and crackers…


Ingredients

  • 2 medium/small aubergines
  • 1/2 clove garlic (crushed)
  • 2 tablespoons tahini
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 250gr (2 small tubs) plain yogurt

Making

Roast the aubergines in tinfoil (prick them all over beforehand) for at least an hour until soft and mushy. Let them cool then take off as much of the skin as you can. While they’re cooling mix the tahini, yogurt and garlic together with the oil. Take the cooled aubergines and with the skins off mash the flesh up as best you can giving it a swirl with a hand mixer if necessary but no need to make it a puree. Mix in with you yogurt mix and add salt to taste.  Serve with warm flatbreads.

To make baba ghanoush, add one finely chopped tomato, hot green pepper and onion to the roasted aubergine flesh and stir in. Crush 2 garlic cloves with a teaspoon of salt and add to 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 of lemon juice. Stir the liquid into the vegetables with a tablespoon of finely chopped fresh mint and garnish with parsley to serve.

(Cookbooks and references – ‘Modern Mezze’, Anissa Helou/’Classic Lebanese Cuisine’, Kamal Al-Faqih/’The Petra Kitchen’, Jordan)

It’s still cherry season. Inspired by Syrian food and having eaten devoured my way around the better part of the country last year it seemed the time to attempt a savory cherry sauce…

Despite most Parisian shops displaying evidence to the contrary it is possible to find them for less then 3 euro a kilo. Never having thought much about the potential of cherries, eating my way around Syria on holiday last year changed my mind.  The northern Syrian city of Aleppo boasts a specialty dish that has infiltrated every eating house in the country – lamb, either a kebab or perhaps meatballs, served with a hot, dark, thick cherry sauce that is delicious.

Dinnering in Syria

Spot the cherry sauce?

The countryside surrounding Aleppo is famous for a particular type of black cherry which is smaller and a little sour. They bloom in spring time and the fruit is plentiful. Hence the ubiquitous lamb with cherry sauce dish on every menu…
Sissi House, a relatively upmarket Aleppan restaurant in the old Christian quarter was my first taste of the cherry lamb experience. Al Khawali in Straight Street in Damascus was another. The more innovative and modern Naranj, and for me the best, (albeit upscale for Damascus) restaurant does a less traditional version of the Aleppan cherry kebab as well as an extensive menu of all kinds of Syrian traditional delights given just a touch of a modern makeover.  This restaurant has a retractable ceiling, a touch of Beruiti glamour and truly good food. Reservations essential and never dine before nine!

cherryjars

Saha – A chef’s journey through Lebanon and Syria - the cookbook previously discussed here - has a cherry sauce recipe. I made very much my own version of it the other night and impatiently devoured it cold with cheese the following day. Not exactly the most authentic of first attempts but a decent, versatile sauce nonetheless. Next time it will be duly served hot with spicy lamb. This is a great little compote to serve cold or hot.

Note: Another recipe can be found here on a great blog, recently discovered - Anissa’s – she has a great sophisticated and authentic cherry kebab and sauce recipe here.

cherry sauce.JPG

Ingredients

1 kilo fresh cherries – pitted, not too ripe

250ml chicken or vegetable stock

1 teaspoon white pepper

1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses

2 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon nut oil for frying

1 tablespoon butter

1 half teaspoon cinnamon

Optional – some Greek yogurt or crème fraiche for serving when serving hot

Making
Soak the pitted cherries for about an hour in enough water to cover them. Heat the nut oil with a little butter, add the diced garlic and fry until golden and soft. Add the cherries with their soaking water, the pomegranate molasses, and the white pepper. Simmer on a very low heat with about 250ml water or stock for about 45 minutes. Add half a teaspoon of cinnamon before bringing to the boil until most of the liquid burns off and you’re left with a thick dark sauce. It will be quite reduced. Take off the heat and either serve immediately hot with lamb cutlets or spicy lamb meatballs. Otherwise leave to cool and chill overnight to serve it with cheese.

Itching to make some kind of pizza, comforting bread or just a floury mess in the kitchen I decided to attack the flat bread recipe in one of my favourite armchair travel cookbooks. This book is a homage to the Lebanese cooking that is integral to the heritage of Greg Malouf, one of the authors. Well over three hundred pages of mezze, meats and sweets. Recipes but much more. A simply written account of a journey back home but also an exploration of Lebanese culture and cuisine as well as those of Syria. There is a real sense of a humbling personal experience and genuine love of the food of the region whether it’s because it evokes childhood dishes served up by aunts or grandmothers at home in Australia or his palpable awe at the prospect of visiting the homeland. But more then that, the recipes are authentic, easy to follow yet challenging, a joy to cook, aromatic, comforting and elegant and a reminder of all the other ingredients out there and ways of making food there are. I judge cookbooks often more by how entertaining they are to read then how useful they are in the kitchen. These recipes are given in a cultural context, with detailed descriptions of each region, different local producers and methods so the reader can take the time to understand where a dish came from, the regional influences and nuances that led to the appearance of a certain recipe on a given page and if nothing else it will transport you to a sunny street in Damascus or a busy Beirut street cafe in a matter of pages.

IMG_0963- Manoushi bread dough – recipe taken from Saha – A chef’s journey through Lebanon and Syria by Greg and Lucy Malouf, published in 2005.

This kind of cooking is the real slow food movement, short cuts not recommended. We’re often talking ingredients not found lying around the kitchen and methods that require a bit of elbow grease. But no matter. Part of the fun is seeking out those ingredients and seeing if you can knead and slice and smell your way into producing something like Aleppo style lamb with a cherry sauce or roasted quail in flat bread with a pistachio sauce. Even just a good home made hummus or moutabel.

I enjoy making bread, kneading far more then is necessary but enjoying the therapeutic process required to make that smooth soft seamless ball of dough from the chaos and mess that is flour, water and yeast.

This bread is essentially a basic pizza dough and is a basic snack food of Lebanon and Syria served either simply with a scattering of sumac ansd  zaatar or used as the base for a hearty sandwich. Sumac is a rusty reddish coloured berry that is dried and ground to make a spicy flavouring for soups, sauces or meat. It is also an ingredient of zaatar which is another condiment made with a mixture of thyme, salt and toasted  sesame seeds, a salty topping for the traditional Lebanese galettes or Manouch’e….use it instead of salt to brighten things up.
IMG_0967
When the dough is ready divide it up into about twelve small pieces. Or as many as you’ll need. The dough you don’t use you can freeze or refrigerate.
IMG_0958

Here is their recipe, keep the dough in the fridge overnight if you’re not ready to use it. Cover it well in plastic when putting in the fridge so it doesn’t absorb any strange flavours or yeasts. Once ready to use, tear off pieces of dough to make mini pizzas in a matter of minutes if you so feel like it…or maybe make one big ‘pizza’….as you wish.

Ingredients
355 grams plain flour
1 teaspoon dried yeast
a half teaspoon salt
a quarter teaspoon of sugar
6 or 7 fluid oz. of warm water
1 tablespoon of olive oil

Making
Mix the flour, yeast and salt. Add the olive oil. Dilute the sugar in the water. Add the water slowly and pull the mixture together until it forms a sticky dough. Don’t worry if it’s a mess and stringy and difficult. Just tip it out onto a floured board and start kneading. Push and fold adding flour or a little water depending on how sticky the dough is.
When you have a smooth tacky but not sticky ball of dough, smooth a little oil around it, cover it and put it in a warm place to rise for a couple of hours.
Then, when ready to use, have your oven pre-heated and roll out and press a small piece of dough with the idea of making a mini pizza, throw it around until it’s thin and stretchy but not too thin.
Spread it with a little olive oil, salt, sumac and zaatar or whatever you wish and bake for about 8 minutes preferably using a pizza stone.