On madness, mahshi, and marathons

What a week. Donald Trump continued on his marathon of political insanity, shamelessly and flippantly making statements about solutions to the Palestine-Israel conflict as if choosing between two-state and one-state was the same as choosing what make of car to buy. Infuriating stuff.

In somewhat less high-profile news, I too seemed to compete with, if not Donald Trump, at least other semi-sane people, in madness, when deciding to follow a two-hour training run, at 5 mins 30 a kilometre, with a five-hour Palestinian cooking marathon, at 5 mins 30 a cored half-courgette. Unlike Trump however, I realise that if you are serious about your job,  you will try to be well-equipped. And yet sometimes, one’s equipment may just never be big enough for the job.


Inadequate equipment as demonstrated by ridiculously small knife for the task of chopping parsley

As more eagle-eyed readers will have clocked, I postponed my cooking of Joudie Kalla’s enticing Maftoul tabbouleh and Za’atar chicken for another special occasion, and, having wised up to the reality of tackling 50 Palestinian dishes in one year, a ‘six-in-one’ Sunday lunch seemed like a clever way of upping my score. Until, that is, I found myself looking wistfully after smiling, fresh-faced passers-by on their way to the local hipster food market to drink £4 slow-drip filter coffees and eat organic, multicultural, and/or paleo-vegan food  in the warm February sun, while I marched doggedly towards the cheaper, artificially-lit, indoor alternative for my marathon shop.

img_2584-1I attracted a lot of interest as I lined up tomatoes, courgettes and aubergines in (non-violent) regiments on the supermarket shopping belt. ‘Can I come for lunch?’ the lady behind me in the queue asked, after I told her I was making stuffed courgettes (I decided against listing the rest of the menu). ‘Oh my God’ the cash attendant exclaimed ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone buying that many tomatoes…’

I have wanted to make stuffed courgettes – or kousa mahshi– since coming back from Palestine. Well, more specifically, I have been wanting my use my courgette ‘corer’, which was one of my last purchases in Jerusalem, since that time. A courgette corer which I was highly surprised to discover, forgotten, in my handbag after a thorough hand luggage check by Israeli airport security, who are not known for their light touch.



The unoffending object

Kousa mahshi was one of the first dishes (the very first being the wonderful Maqluba, which is definitely going to get a spot on this blog) I was served upon arrival in Al Khalil/Hebron, when my team and I were treated to a feast by our generous and gifted landlady. In another life, when not doing the important and necessary work of accompanying children to school through military checkpoints, I would have spent all my time as an apprentice in her kitchen. As it was, I only got to help her prepare a weekend lunch of kousa mahshi once, and that is when I realized I needed a courgette corer.

This need was identified despite many years of blissful ignorance of its existence while eating Greek kolokithakia yemista (stuffed courgettes) at my grandmother’s house, presumably prepared using a vegetable peeler or some other improvised method.


So, is the courgette corer worth all the hype, including risking an unwelcome brush with the Israeli border police, you ask?   Well, after I settled on the method of starting in the middle of the courgette and working outwards, it seemed to go well, if probably at a quarter the speed of well-practiced Palestinian cook.

In a subsequent, and yet characteristic, abandonment of method, I proceeded from carefully coring courgettes to frantically trying to combine three recipes in one, as detailed below. Despite that, it went down well, along with the other dishes, with a lunch party of eight friends of discerning tastes. ‘This food not only delicious, but it tells a story’, one commented. Stay tuned for further food stories.

Kousa mahshi (serves 12)


12 large courgettes

 For the fillings:


1.5 cups of short-grain rice

3 cups water

1 onion, diced

1 tbsp allspice

½ tbsp cinnamon

3 tbsps olive oil

3/4 cup raisins

1/2 cup of toasted pine nuts


1 kg beef (or lamb)

1 onion

2 tbsps olive oil

1 tbsp allspice

½ tbsp cinnamon

1 tsp salt

2 diced tomatoes

1 cup of chopped parsley

For the sauce:

3 large whole tomatoes or two cans of chopped tomatoes

2 cups of broth (vegetable or chicken)

3 tbsps tomato paste

3 garlic cloves

1 tsp salt



First, core your courgettes, so that they are left with about a ¼ centimeter rim (see photo if that doesn’t sound right). Remember aforementioned indicative timing of 5 minutes 30 seconds per half-courgette, and you will realize you need quite a bit of time to do this.



Making the vegetarian filling:

  1. Sauté the diced onion in olive oil until soft. Add the spices, fry for a couple of minutes. Then add the rice and sauté for a further few minutes.
  2. Boil the water in the kettle for speed, then add to the rice. Simmer until all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is cooked (around 20 minutes, depending on the rice).
  3. Once cooked, remove from heat, add in the raisins and toasted pine nuts and mix well.

Making the meat filling

  1. Heat the olive oil in the pan, add the onions and sauté until soft.
  2. Add the beef, allspice, cinnamon and salt, and fry until the meat has brown and the liquid has evaporated.
  3. Remove from heat and mix with the diced tomatoes and parsley

The sauce and the rest

  1. Puree the whole or cans of diced tomatoes, and mix with broth, tomato paste, 1 tsp salt, garlic cloves and chopped mint. Simmer for at least 30 minutes.
  2. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.
  3. Mix about a cup of the rice mixture with the meat, so it is still mostly meat but ‘peppered’ (or maybe more appropriate to say ‘salted’) with rice.
  4. Stuff 6 courgettes with the veggie mixture and the other 6 with the meat mixture. Stuff them well, as there is nothing worse than finding half your courgette empty.
  5. Line them up in an appropriately sized baking tray (s), leaving enough space between courgettes so they cook properly. Cover with sauce.
  6. Cook for 45 minutes-1 hour (until they are soft and a bit coloured), turning half-way through.

Delirium T-remmen-s


Photo credit: Zannah Cooper

Ah, the mighty pomegranate. Such a beautiful and seductive fruit; its leathery red skin and multitude of succulent ruby seeds bearing age-old myths and evoking ancient longings. According to Joudie Kalla, who I am cooking along with during her three-week Guardian residency, across the Middle East the pomegranate (remmen or rumman, in Arabic) is a symbol of abundance and prosperity. So too – perhaps due to common climates and past empires- in Greece, from where my mother hails. Although my mother is not someone you would call conventional, she displays the odd bout of radical fervour. The New Year after my beloved grandmother died, she took it upon herself to enact the Greek tradition of breaking a pomegranate on the front doorstep, to usher in good fortune for the year. The fruit lay there, dismembered and oozing its red syrup, looking a bit like road kill. I can’t tell you if that year was a particularly fortuitous one.

Pomegranate molasses is another Middle Eastern delight that I was first introduced to through aforementioned cookbook Jerusalem. In a recent Channel 4 Desert Island Discs interview, co-author Ottolenghi willingly accepted responsibility for engendering pomegranate-molasses-neurosis (my paraphrase) amongst exotic-food-obsessed middle class Britons. Before going any further, I would like to issue a warning: if you are going to make this recipe, and you are not already in the category of exotic-food-obsessed neurotic, ensure you buy all-natural pomegranate molasses with no added nothing. I learnt my lesson after causing a mini-crisis when cooking a Lebanese meal with some friends before embarking upon my sabbatical adventure. One co-cook, who had spent years in Lebanon, curled his face up in pure disgust at the pomegranate molasses I had bought, which smelt sweet and sugary and nothing like the wonderful burst of sourness you should get from a good pomegranate molasses.


Evil pomegranate molasses to the left. Good to the right. Photo credit: Zannah Cooper.

While Lebanese food abounds in pomegranate molasses, I must admit I didn’t come across the ingredient that much when in Palestine, and had never heard of the dish Rummaniyeh before reading Joudie’s recipe. I was interested to learn from her article that it is more common to coastal areas: namely Yaffa, the largest city in historic Palestine -and now within the borders of present-day Israel-, and Gaza, to where a large part of Yaffa’s inhabitants were displaced during the 1948-49 war. Due to the mounting difficulties moving from one part of the Palestinian territories to another, Palestinian cuisines are now becoming even more fragmented and localized. Even though I am familiar with these difficulties, I was still struck by yet another way in which national culture is being destroyed.

Well, how to move on, except to say that despite this being my first encounter this dish, it was, like the Za’atar buns, a total joy to make and to eat. I particularly enjoyed trying out a new way to de-seed a pomegranate, after watching Joudie’s insta-video. This involved cutting the fruit in half, massaging and then beating it with a wooden spoon. Very 50 Shades. There were still bits of pulp in there but it was more fun and less messy than the turning inside-out method.


The massaged and beaten pomegranate. Photo credit: Zannah Cooper.

The best thing(s) about this dish: simple, cheap and delicious. Even the aubergine, my ancient nemesis, cooked properly, if in a slightly longer time than in the recipe (but probably because I added a bit more than specified). It added a lovely texture to the dish.

I enjoyed it with Greek yoghurt, Arab bread, Basmati rice, a mulatto salad and Anglo-Scottish/South African friends talking about broken hearts and Christian attitudes to sex. The pomegranate had its way, obviously.

Joudie Kalla’s Rummaniyeh


Photo credit: Zannah Cooper

Serves 4


250g brown lentils

1 tbsp ground cumin

600ml water

1 aubergine, peeled and cubed into small pieces

1 tbsp salt

50ml olive oil, plus extra for drizzling

4–6 large garlic cloves, sliced and crushed

150ml pomegranate molasses

Juice of 2 lemons

1 tbsp plain flour (optional)

1 pomegranate, seeded

Flat-leaf parsley, chopped, to serve

Taboon bread or khubez, to serve


1 Put the lentils, cumin and water in a saucepan, bring to the boil and then continue to boil for 10 minutes. Add the aubergine and salt, then leave to simmer for 25 minutes.

2 Set another pan over a medium heat. Add the olive oil and garlic and cook for a few minutes until they turn golden.

3 When the lentils and aubergine have been cooking for their 25 minutes, add the fried garlic and pomegranate molasses, and stir. Cook for another 5 minutes, then mix in the lemon juice and, if you like, add the optional tbsp of flour to thicken the dish (omit this for a gluten-free version).

4 Place in a serving bowl, drizzle with a little olive oil, scatter the pomegranate seeds over the top and finish with some parsley. Enjoy with hot taboon bread or khubez.






A new chapter

It’s a new year and I am back in London after my sabbatical walkabout, but still with both the Middle East, and food, on my mind. After Lebanon I went on to Palestine and Israel as an Ecumenical Accompanier, and spent three months providing protection by presence to communities living under occupation in Hebron. The experience moved me to revive this blog with more of a focus: first, a focus on food; second, a focus on Palestine. For the next year I am going to try to make 50 Palestinian recipes to highlight the 50 years that that Palestine has been under Israeli occupation. 50 years is also significant because it is the year of Jubilee, a year when according the Christian and Jewish scriptures, we are called to forgive debts and free the oppressed. With this in mind, I decided on the perhaps slightly corny tag of #50feaststofreedom.


A poppy in Hebron: the poppy is said to be the unofficial flower of Palestine

My first recipe experiment of Za’atar pastry rolls comes from the Guardian Cook supplement, where Palestinian chef Joudie Kalla has a three-week residency. I was excited to try this bake because I love Za’atar and I love kneading, and I somehow thought it would be a miracle if I could make such beautiful-looking spiraled rolls. Za’atar is a popular and delicious Middle Eastern spice; I was first introduced to it (like I was to many more exotic ingredients) through one of my favourite cookbooks: Jerusalem, by Jewish- and Palestinian-Israeli chefs Yottam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. It is a mix of a type of dried wild thyme or oregano (the actual za’atar), sesame seeds, salt, and sometimes sumac, another Middle Eastern spice that will get its due respect on another blog.


Cucumbers and cabbages on sale in Hebron

During my time as an Ecumenical Accompanier, we would walk every day through the market in the Palestinian part of Hebron in order to reach the old city, which is still under Israeli military occupation. The market is, in my opinion, one of the best food markets in the West Bank. It was hard to stay on course to our ‘checkpoint duties’ – ensuring children were able to get to school safely and people were able to get to the mosque without more than the usual hassles -, without being distracted by the beautiful fruit, vegetables and spices on display.

The shop I probably visited the most was one with dozens of spices and nuts – two of my absolute favourite things – in tubs outside, and a sales boy whose smile would warm the cockles of any discouraged heart. After several visits, he would ask ‘lawz?’ (almonds) or ‘za’atar?’ before I could open my mouth. The shop sold at least three types of za’atar; you could catch the divine scent of za’atar ‘baladieh’ (homemade or, literally, from the village) for miles around.




Anyway, to the recipe.

Uncharacteristically, I approached this recipe in a very methodical way. Usually one to pummel my way through cupboards with pastry-covered hands searching for a baking dish, this time I began by calmly laying out all my ingredients and equipment on the table. I even got a measuring tape out to ensure my Za’atar rolls were really 2cm deep. This made for a pleasantly painless cooking experience, and one I would like to repeat. The only hitch was realizing we had committed the kitchen sin of running out of olive oil, but luckily I had 25 minutes of pastry rising time in which to redeem this.



The perfect 2cm bun

The recipe was easy to follow and went well. I was grateful that Joudie had advised that it would need from 800 to 1kg of flour, depending on the weather, as sometimes I panic when I need to veer away from the instructed quantities. The only fault I could find was that one 33×22 cm baking tray was definitely not enough; the recipe made more than 20 rolls and these still only just squeezed into two trays of that size.



Za’atar rolls fresh from the oven

Although not as beautiful as Joudie’s own, my rolls still looked very pretty. I served them to some old friends with a brunch of cheese, yoghurt, cucumber and pomegranate seeds, trying to recall a Palestinian or Lebanese breakfast. They tasted delicious, although a little dry, and I wonder whether the za’atar mix needed more olive oil. They are also definitely best served warm, straight out of the oven, so if you have a small crowd, you could reduce the quantity by half. But just for the joy of making such pretty rolls I would do it all over again.

Joudie Kalla’s Za’atar buns 

Makes about 20

For the dough

800g plain flour

25g caster sugar

2 tsp salt

21g (3 sachets) easy bake yeast or 45g fresh yeast

100g butter

400ml milk, warmed

2 eggs

To fill and finish

150ml olive oil

175g za’atar

1 egg, beaten

50g sesame seeds


1 Line the bottom and sides of a roasting tin or large brownie tin, preferably around 33cm x 22cm in size, with baking parchment (make that 2!). Then preheat the oven to 210C/410F/gas mark 6½.

2 Combine the flour, sugar, salt and yeast in a large bowl. Melt the butter and whisk it into the milk and eggs, then stir this into the flour mixture. Mix to combine and then knead the dough either by hand or using the dough hook of a food mixer until it’s smooth and springy. If you feel it is too wet, simply add a little more flour: sometimes it ranges up to 1kg flour, dependent on the weather.

3 Form the dough into a ball, put in an oiled bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave it to rise for about 25 minutes.

4 Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface, aiming to get a rectangle of roughly 50 x 25cm.

5 Mix the oil and za’atar in a small bowl, then spread this evenly over the dough.

6 Roll it up from one of the longer sides until you have a giant sausage. Cut the roll into 2cm slices – this should make about 20 rounds. Sit the rounds in lines in the tin, making sure the swirly cut-side is up. Don’t worry if they don’t fit snugly together as they will swell and become fluffy when they prove and bake.

7 Brush the rolls with egg, sprinkle the sesame seeds all over and let them rise again for another 15 minutes to really get that volume in them.

8 Bake for 20-25 minutes, by which time the buns will have risen and turned golden brown. Don’t worry if they catch in places. Remove them from the tin and leave them to cool slightly. Serve with tomatoes, labneh and feta cheese.