There is something always particularly exciting about the discovery of a new region to draw your cooking from and so in recent weeks I have been on a culinary journey which began approximately 12 months ago in Spain, crossed the strait of Gibraltar to Morocco and leapfrogged its way into Lebanon. Of course, the journey does not see me wander much further than my kitchen and dining table but thanks to anecdotal comments many enlightened cookery writers place alongside their recipes cooking a meal can be the equivalent of a cultural experience to bring the tastes and flavours of a middle eastern market street food outlet into your own living room.
The Lebanese Kitchen by Selma Hage is a cookbook published by the wonderful Phaidon which is enhanced by the unusual way they have cut zig-zags into the edges of each of the 260 odd leaves which make the pages of this wonderful book of recipes.
I have already cooked a few recipes from the book but this weekend saw us go truly Lebanese crazy as we drew on it for both our Friday and Saturday night meals. Friday saw us opting for Mother’s Milk with lamb; a fairly simple recipe of minced lamb cooked in a sauce made of yogurt, water and cornflour with lots of garlic thrown in for pungency and mint for sweetness. Mixed with rice, the meal was a riot of flavour with the flavour of the lamb buttressed by the tart acid of the yogurt. This was one of those meals where every flavour played its part as the meat, garlic, yogurt and mint vied for position to come out tops but overall it was a tie with all four flavours crossing the line in dead heat.
I confess, it has a look of porridge about it but I can assure you it tasted wonderful served with slices of grilled aubergine (egg plant).
So successful was Friday night’s dish that we stayed in Lebanon for a further night opting for a fish dish of fried cod with caramalized onions and rice. We nipped out in the afternoon to buy the fish and elected to buy an alternative white fish instead and chose pouting, not least because it was substantially cheaper than the cod and no doubt more sustainable too.
The dish required the slow cooking of two thinly sliced onions with 2 tablespoons of brown sugar until it was practically caramalized which was then mixed with cooked basmati rice. A sauce was made out of capers, tomatoes, garlic, lemon juice and parsley which was spooned over the pan-fried pouting fillets sitting on the caramalized onion and rice mix. This was the first time we had tried pouting and although not as strong in flavour as cod, it’s delicacy was enhanced by the sweet sauces of top and below. We also threw in a handful of broad beans which gave it a bit of additional colour.
I think we’ll stick around in Lebanon format least another week or two and perhaps hop over to Morocco to give the tagine a run out in between but now we’ve discovered the flavours of Lebanese cooking I suspect it will become a region that we shall visit, at least culinarily, quite often!
As you may be aware it was my fiftieth birthday on April 15th and amongst other things I received a glazed Emile Henry tagine, a bit like this one:
I also ordered a couple of fine cookery books, one of Lebanese cookery and also the very excellent The Food Of Morocco by Paula Wolfert
The tagine had its first run out last Saturday night with a recipe for beef which I’ve already blogged but this week’s recipe was chosen by Carolyn on Thursday prior to her doing the weekend shop so from page 302 we were to have chicken with fennel, preserved lemons and olives. this is how it looked in the book:
The recipe was fairly basic, the only ingredient we struggled to get was green aniseed so I used star anise instead but I used the last of the bought preserved lemons from the fridge, C got fennel and green olives so along with 3 chicken quarters, an onion, garlic and ginger with a little parley we were ready to go. Interestingly, the recipe suggested soaking the chicken pieces in salted water for a couple of hours in advance, which I did and then after patting them dry I fried them skin side down in the base of the tagine until the skin turned golden. Out they came and in went the onion and garlic followed by the ginger, preserved lemon rind, saffron, star anise, 80ml of water and finally the chicken. on went the lid and it simmered for about 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, I turned the chicken pieces over, added the sliced fennel and olives and this time placed it in the oven already heated to 170 degrees C.
Here is how it looked when I took it out of the oven and removed the lid:
The chicken pieces here are upside down and here is is on the plate served with bulgur wheat:
This was a quite simple tagine dish to make but it didn’t lack for taste and flavour. The fennel and star anise imparted a subtle flavour of aniseed and the chicken was cooked to perfection. Moroccan food is still my best cuisine at the moment and with a whole new book to work through I’ve got a feeling it’s going to stay #1 for some time to come!
Are there such things as favourites? A favourite restaurant? A favourite song? A favourite movie or favourite food? Probably but I would say best things are better; the best song you ever heard, the best cocktail you ever drank, the best partner you ever had!? Favourites can be dangerous and become things you return to again and again; that song that you repeatedly play or that dish that you repeatedly cook – you like them, that’s fine but nothing is as good as the first time and every time you return to a favourite you are denying yourself the opportunity of trying something new that might just become your new favourite! A ‘best’ thing can always be bettered and having bests can inspire you to search for the better. So don’t have favourites, treat something you enjoyed more than anything else as the best in its class but don’t deny yourself the opportunity to try what might just become your next best thing!
The current best thing for me foodwise is my brand new Emile Henry (not Emile Heskey!) Tagine I received for my 50th birthday from my brother on 15th April. We’ve grown quite a liking to ‘tagine’ recipes even though up until the weekend we cooked the dishes in a regular large frying pan with a lid that was no more than convex. However, this Saturday saw my first opportunity to give my new tagine a run out and I chose a recipe from the Moroccan chapter of Jamie Oliver’s Jamie Does cook book – Beef tagine.
Here’s Jamie’s version from his book (copyright Jamie Oliver etc…)
Now, on this particular day, my wife and I had visited Manchester for a day’s shopping and didn’t arrive home until about 7pm. So it was a rush into the kitchen, get the recipe open and crack on! The first part of the process was to create a spice mix called ras-el-hanout which translates to top of the house and after a bit of research I discovered that this mix can contain just about any mix of spices you have to hand. So I bunged in everything I could find from cumin, to coriander, ginger, soumac, allspice, cinnamon, turmeric and loads more. With time running short I barely had time to give the meat a 20 minute marinade when the recipe called for 2 hours plus! Still, I fried some onion and coriander (cilantro) stalks in olive oil in the base of the tagine before chucking in the meat to brown off. I did manage to soak some chick peas earlier in the morning and I now had these boiling away in a separate saucepan but I poured in a can of tomatoes and stock into the tagine, popped on the lid and left it to simmer for an hour. After an hour, I tipped in the chickpeas and added some diced butternut squash and dried prunes. Although the recipe advised cooking it for 3 and a bit hours, I really only had a couple of hours otherwise we wouldn’t have been eating until way after 11pm! A few toasted almond flakes sprinkled over the top finished the dish and added a bit of crunch. However, as with all tagine dishes I’ve tried recently the flavours and tastes in the dish were superb, the only slight problem was that the meat wasn’t quite a meltingly tender as another 60 minutes simmering would have produced. Here’s my resultant dish which was washed down with a bottle of Chablis (we tend to do white wines when it’s late)
So tagines are my current best food and I admit can be counted amongst my favourites. They may not be my best for ever but I’ll certainly make the most of them until they aren’t!