Eggs-perimentation and Allot-of-iteration

It may have appeared quiet on the Middle Eastern front (well, only from the perspective of my blogging, since quiet it never is in the Middle East) but there has been plenty of action in the test kitchen.

In a recent break from tradition, I deviated from my tendency to religiously adhere to recipes. That tendency can result in sweat, tears, swearing and a kitchen that looks like it has just undergone a night raid by the Israeli army, especially when the recipe in question is from Ottolenghi and has about as many ingredients and twists and turns as a Bourne film (for one recipe I sent my flatmate on the hunt for barberries, which caused her quite a lot of amusement. Luckily she happened to be in Wholefoods at the time, where they actually sell bio-barberries, don’t you know).

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Oh dark and mysterious soil, will you produce life?

But I do usually like to follow recipes and rules. I like the guarantee that instructions offer of, if not a great result, at least something/some higher authority to blame if it doesn’t work out. But, as someone recently commented on one of my social media posts asking whether the small green things on a tree in our front garden were limes or lemons, sometimes you just have to ‘wait and see’. Much of life, and a lot of creative endeavours, are about iteration; and reiteration. My recent foray into growing herbs and allotment gardening is a case in point. Throwing some magic beans or coriander seeds into soil and not knowing for *at least* two weeks whether they are going to offer signs of life, or whether you are going to have to try all over again, feels to me like trying to find your way around in a dark room. But I have to learn to ‘live the questions’, as per Rilke’s advice to the young poet.

The recipe on this week’s blog, simple though it seems, also involved some exploration. It was inspired by a Palestinian friend who, when we were chatting about different dishes, started to talk enthusiastically about something she called Kuadia, (قعدية) which is apparently eaten often in the village she is from, near Nablus, in the north of the occupied West Bank. An alternative name for this dish is ‘egg snack’, which gives more of a hint of its ingredients than the Arabic name, for non-Arabic speakers.

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The cute ‘egg snack’ cupcake

She described it to me as an egg baked in the oven on pastry, with the edges turned up. So the first thing that I imagined was a type of egg in pastry cupcake. I tried that, and sent my special advisor on egg snacks the picture. ‘Looks amazing!’, she said. But after some probing, she told me the pastry should actually be flat, despite the cuteness of the egg cupcake.

As I like to take on double challenges, I tried it again for a birthday/goodbye brunch we hosted for a friend who sadly joined the London exodus, on the same day that I ran a half-marathon for the first time. Turns out that cracking an egg into pastry with a small upturned outer rim is a bit trickier than the cupcake tin version. But only one turned into a Jackson Pollock-esque ‘egg snack’. This time round, I also blind baked the pastry for about ten minutes, and lined some of it with home-made harissa before breaking the egg onto it.

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Egg snack take 2

Recipe follows, with an Ottolenghi harissa paste to keep you sweating and swearing.

Kuadia’ or ‘Egg snack’

Ingredients:

Pastry, as per the recipe on my last blog

Eggs

Salt, pepper, sumac and za’atar, for seasoning

Dried beans, for blind baking

For the harissa paste

1 red pepper

½ teaspoon coriander seeds

½ teaspoon cumin seeds

½ teaspoon caraway seeds

1 ½ tbsp. olive oil

1 small red onion, roughly chopped

3 hot red chillies, de-seeded and roughly chopppe

½ tbsp. tomato puree

2 tbsp lemon juice

½ tsp salt

Method:

For the harissa paste

Place the pepper under a very hot grill until blackened outside and soft, turning occasionally. This should take about 25 minutes. Transfer to another dish, cover with cling film and let cool. Once cooled, peel the pepper and discard the skin and seeds.

Toast the seeds in a dry frying pan on a low heat for about two minutes. Grind to a powder in a pestle and mortar.

Heat the olive oil and fry the onion, garlic and chillis on a medium heat until they are a dark smoky colour and almost caramelized. This should take about 10-15 minutes.

Blitz together all the ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Add more oil if needed.

For the egg snack

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees.

Divide the pastry into small balls, then flatten these into circles, of a size just a bit larger than your average fried egg. Turn up the edges a little, as per the picture.

Put some baking paper on top of the pastry and cover with beans. Blind bake for 5-10 minutes, until the pastry is semi-cooked.

Take out of the oven,  remove the beans and baking paper, and quickly line the pastry with harissa paste, if using. Break the egg on top and pop back into the oven, baking for another 8-10 minutes, until the white is cooked.

Delicious served with labneh, hummus and any other typical Middle Eastern breakfast dish.

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‘Foul’ or broad beans, growing in the allotment

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For the love of Yog

We have a (friendly) debate going in our household about which is better, Greek or Turkish yoghurt. Greek is, naturally, but let’s humour the arguments for a minute. Greek is delicious in its rich, creamy thickness, divine drizzled with honey and mixed with fresh summer fruits, and equally scrumptious in what is surely the best cucumber and yoghurt dip in the world, Tzatiki. Turkish is also thick and creamy but has a bit more of a tang, and is cheaper (how do the Turks manage to do always do everything so cheap?). Cheap often wins. But hold your Trojan horses just a second, and enter Labneh. Labneh is Palestine’s and the wider Levant’s dairy chameleon. It can be Greek yoghurt one day, cream cheese the next, and goat’s cheese preserved in chilli oil, on yet another day. You can have it with fruit, on top of your porridge, as a dip or mezza, as a side to go with Musakhan or Maqluba (more on both of those at a later stage). Once you get a taste for it, you will want to put it everywhere (almost).

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Labneh with whatever you fancy

We consumed it on a daily basis in Hebron. There was one shop in particular we always frequented, where endless tubs of different types of labneh, many fresh from the farm, were on display. The shopkeeper, usually with a cheeky smile and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, would advise us which one to go for: that one is too salty; this one is homemade; this one is the most delicious…and he would let us taste and see.

Khan Al Ahmar village

The Bedouin village of Khan Al Ahmar, east of Jerusalem

During my three months in the occupied West Bank, I visited communities for whom making labneh was a way of life and livelihood. They included the Bedouin Jahalin of a small village called Khan Al Ahmar, east of Jerusalem. The Bedouin in the West Bank are nomadic peoples who used to live in the Negev desert in present-day Israel, and became refugees during the 1948 war. Many, like those in Khan Al Ahmar, are now, once again, threatened with imminent displacement. They are situated in a strategic area near one of the largest and expanding Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and, since Israel administers the area (known as Area C), are referred to by the Israeli authorities as ‘unauthorized villages’.*

When I visited with the local EAPPI team just before Easter last year, one of the community leaders was straining labneh. Curious, I asked her how it was done and she explained the process, which began with milking their goats.

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The cute goats of Khan Al Ahmar

Sadly, I now live in a metropolis, and, however lucky we are to have an urban allotment, it doesn’t come with cute goats. But, despair not, as there is a cheat’s way to making delicious labneh. It is so easy you can do it while you brush your teeth at night, and it will be ready in the morning. All you need is some plain yoghurt, salt, a sieve, a bowl, and some cheesecloth or muslin. And if you can’t be bothered to go out of your way to find that, you can recycle/adapt a H&M Conscious fine-weave cotton bag for purpose, like I did.

 

IMG_2657So here goes:

Ingredients:

1 kilo of yoghurt (I used various types of cow’s yoghurt, but plain, non-set is probably the best)

1-2 teaspoons of salt (omit if you prefer something you can eat with fruit for breakfast)

 Equipment

A piece of fine-weave cloth (cheesecloth, muslin, or fine-weave cotton), about the size of a tea towel

Twine

A bowl

A sieve/colander or a wooden spoon

A heavy weight (if making very thick labneh)

 Method

Mix the salt into the yoghurt, if opting for salty version

Put the mix into the cloth, wrap and tie tightly with twine

Then either:

a) Put the cloth into a colander suspended over a bowl, with enough space for the liquid to drain from the yoghurt (apparently the whey is drawn out during this process, but I don’t really know what that means)

or:

b) Suspend the yoghurt parcel over the bowl by tie-ing it to a wooden spoon

Leave for about 12 hours

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What your labneh should look like

If you are going for a creamy plain or salty labneh, with a consistency a bit thicker than Greek yoghurt, you can stop there. Transfer the now ‘cream cheese’ from the cloth into a bowl, and eat with whatever takes your fancy. You can enjoy as part of a Middle Eastern breakfast with cucumbers, tomatoes, boiled eggs, za’atar, and flatbread, or as a side with a main dish, like chicken musakhan.

If you want to take it to the next level, and turn your labneh into pretty little labneh balls covered in za’atar or chilli and chopped nuts, then you need to leave it to strain for a bit longer, around 24 hours. It can help to put a heavy weight over it. It should, by that stage, have a consistency of a soft-ish goat’s cheese.

Then, take small amounts of the labneh in your hand, and roll into balls, approximately 2cm in diameter. Preserve by putting them into an airtight container and covering with olive oil. When the time comes to impress your guests with them, you can dust with za’atar, sumac, nuts, or whatever else your mind conjures up.

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Labneh covered in za’atar. Desert and dairy in one, yum.

And according to this blog, you can actually use the strained liquid for other things. But I haven’t tried that one yet.

*You can watch a short video here about the situation of the Jahalin Bedouin, and take action, raising awareness or asking your political representative to put pressure on Israel to halt the scheduled evictions.

Smells like the desert

‘What is this? It smells and tastes like the desert’, one of my guests remarked at my marathon Palestinian meal served close to two weeks ago (and whose recipes I still haven’t fully revealed). We all turned to him inquisitively: ‘what does the desert taste like?’ a couple of voices chimed in unison. He went on to explain that it took him back to where he had grown up, in a desert state of the Southern US.

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Looks like the desert. Actually a beautiful landscape near Sebastiya, in the northern West Bank

The French novelist Marcel Proust famously wrote about the power of smell in triggering emotional memory. In my own life, I can testify that one of my most enduring smell-triggered memories is the combined odour of overheating tyres and petrol fumes, which has the unlikely effect of bringing me back to romantic memories of the sun setting on the Arno river in Florence, with sunglasses- and leather jacket-attired Italians screeching by on their mopeds.

For all its toxicity, London produces the occasional pleasant scent. In early January, the scent of pine wafted through certain streets as people admitted that Christmas was over and put their trees out. And just last weekend, I was running with a friend by the lovely canal boats in East London, when on a short inhale of breath, we caught a whisp of that desert scent again.

By now, you are saying to yourself: ‘Dang! Will she just tell us what it is that smells like the desert already’. Well, you are only saying it like that if you are American, which according to my blog stats, is not likely (according to my blog stats, you are most likely to be my parents). I’ll put you out of your misery: that desert scent emanates from none other than that much loved and lauded za’atar mix of wild thyme, sumac and sesame seeds.

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Manakish with za’atar, eaten at my table

After nearly one and a half hours of running, that za’atar smell (which may have been smoldering wood-fire embers, for all we knew) provoked some serious hunger pangs, and an idea formed in my famished brain. I was going to make Palestinian taboon (stone oven) bread covered with za’atar, to recreate the delicious manakish eaten for breakfast in Jerusalem’s old city.

With the dough requiring at least one hour’s rising time, this was no instant hunger fix. But the anticipation and the joy of working with dough kept me going. As I mentioned before, I love kneading. But I struggle with pressing the dough into the required thin, flat, circles. I remember being mildly distressed at a cookery class some friends and I took with Noor Women’s Empowerment Group at the Aida refugee camp in Bethelem, as the dough for some pastries we made kept springing back into its original shape. On this most recent attempt though, I learnt something: you have to be intentional with the dough. Let it know where you are telling it to go. It manifests in just a mild change of force and direction. But it did the trick. Two hours later: delicious fresh flatbread covered with za’atar and olive oil, and eaten with labneh, hummus, or whatever you like.

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Me being intentional with the dough

I made more the next day when some of my Greek family came to brunch, and in a hot dry pan rather than the oven, and it was even better.

Taboon bread

Thanks largely to Amira’s pantry and Pop Palestine

2 cups of all purpose white flour

½ cup of wholewheat flour

2 tbsp of dry yeast

1 tbsp sugar

1 tbsp salt

70 mls of olive oil

1-1.5 cups of warm water

  1. Mix the dry ingredients together
  2. Add the olive oil, and then slowly add the water, kneading until you have a sticky dough (I probably didn’t leave mine sticky enough)

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    How my dough looked. A bit sad at this point.

  3. Line a bowl with olive oil and leave dough to rise, covered by a cloth, for at least an hour. It should double in size
  4. Divide the dough up into 3-5 balls, depending on how big you want your bread. Press each ball into a small, flat, but quite fat, circle with the palm of your hand, and then work this outwards with your fingers until you have a thin circle (as thin as you like, depending on whether you prefer Naan or pita-style thickness). Reach for the rolling pin if it’s getting too frustrating.
  5. Heat a frying pan over a medium-high heat. When it is hot, put the bread in. Cook until brown on each side (about 3 minutes).
  6. Hey presto! Serve covered with za’atar mixed with olive oil. Or whatever you like.

Now, this being the beginning of the Lent season, it seems appropriate to talk about deserts. And intentions. As I embark on it, I am reminded that we cannot live on bread alone. So after this feast of Taboon, I may be going into the wilderness for a while.

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Looking out into the wilderness, near Yanoun in the northern West Bank

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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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)

 Ingredients

12 large courgettes

 For the fillings:

Vegetarian

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

Meat

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

Method

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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Photo credit: Zannah Cooper

Serves 4

Ingredients

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

Method

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.

Sahtein!

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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Za’atar

 

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.

 

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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.

 

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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

Recipe

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.

One month reflections….

These last couple of weeks I’ve been in the Beirut restaurant kitchen more and enjoying it. Every day a different lady comes in and if language permits, I get to hear a different story, and if I’m lucky, nab a recipe or two. This week I nabbed a recipe for Baklawa bi Halib, (baklava but not as you know it), a super easy and delicious dessert made of milk, semolina and rose and orange blossom water. It was an all-round hit.

  
When I have conversations with the ladies it is hard to get out of my ‘results’ development mindset, trying to assess how poor they are and what percentage of them have had their lives changed through working in the restaurant. Using my average participant observation skills I check out their clothing, jewellery, and feel slightly dismayed if I see some gold rings, and inwardly rejoice if I see a headscarf or some other item indicating poverty and marginalisation (before anyone angrily responds, a headscarf does not automatically equal poverty or marginalisation, it’s just the symbol I chose, ok?). Then I have to remind myself that this is not a development project, but a social enterprise, a concept which I am yet to fully understand. But yesterday, unprompted. a Druze woman from the Chouf mountains  told me how working in the restaurant and the farmers market had changed her life, increasing her income so that now she could send her children to school and university. What music to a development worker’s ears!

In between asking ‘what difference is this making to the lives of the poor and marginalised?’, while chopping tomatoes I am also regularly asking more introspective questions, ranging in profundity, from ‘am I any good at cooking?’ to ‘why am I here?’.

So just over one month in perhaps it is time to make a quick assessment of stage 1 of the sabbatical. As every current and former development worker knows, there is nothing like a good analytical framework when it comes to assessment. I have decided to use Donald Rumsfeld’s famous one, slightly adapted and improved, of course.

The known knowns

I know how to chop tomatoes for tabbouleh, but pretty slowlyI know how to dice an onion correctly, but slowly

I know how to prepare green beans for loubieh bi zeit (green beans in oil), but less fast than desirable

I know how to ‘julienne’ an onion, moving with the fibres of the onion so as not to let water out of the onion, but at the speed of light divided by the speed of light squared

I know how to say parsley, coriander, allspice, seven spice, nutmeg, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, pepper, tomato, onion, garlic, lemon, courgettes, aubergines, semolina, burghul, etc in arabic

Stew with baked bread and hot yoghurt is now my number 1 comfort food.

I know how to say hello, how are you, ’something/nothing/same thing’,  ‘let’s go!’, ‘seriously?’, ‘finished!’, in Arabic.

I know how to say yes in colloquial Lebanese (eh), Palestinian (ah), and Egyptian (aiwa) Arabic.

I know at least one bad word in Arabic, taught to me by aforementioned Lebanese friend and brought to life by a Lebanese taxi driver in Beiruti traffic.

I know Lebanon is filled with many beautiful places, including Baalbek, the most important Roman temple complex in the Middle East

 

Glorious Baalbek

 
I know the rubbish crisis is not resolved, and it is now raining, and the rubbish is going somewhere, probably into the water making it all the more poisonous

I am pretty sure Google maps is adjusted to local walking speed

The known unknowns (these are things I know I don’t know and to which I suspect there is an answer, or things I have been told but I haven’t actually proven in practice)

Lentils: I know there is a version of mujaddara with red lentils and burgul. But should it taste of slightly burnt onion? Where do they actually make it, in the south or the north?? What did that woman from Beirut who made the lovely sweet mujadarra put in it???

Aubergines: what the feurk is Baba Ghanoush anyway and how is it different from Mutabbal (yes I still don’t know…)? How the fook do you cook aubergines to get them all cooked and not have one or two rebel pieces which insist on staying rubbery?

General cooking: am I any good at it? does it matter? (ok maybe this last question goes into last category) how the fuck do you get faster at chopping without removing a finger?!!

Ahem, language: When people say ‘binit’ (girl, in arabic) over and over, are they talking about me? if so does that mean I look young enough to be a girl?

Ancient history: how did they get those 800 tonne stones into Baalbek (ok the guide did say something about the 100,000 slaves, elephants and iron chord, but who knows if he knows?)?

 

Massive stones at Baalbek

 
Slimey foods: Lemon juice apparently makes bemieh (okra) and mouloukhieh (jew’s mallow), less slimey

Politics: who? what?! complex? Or money, power = same stupidity everywhere?! why the feck can’t they sort out the rubbish for starters…do they not know that rubbish washing down streets and into people’s drinking water is only going to make their lives more difficult? March 8 or March 14?

Refugees: How long can a refugee camp be a camp? there are now three generations of Palestinian refugees living in camps, without any legally recognised nationality

 

View of the UNHCR building and the Rafiq Hariri mosque

 
Rubbish crisis: what happens to the rubbish when it disappears from some places and not others?

Unknown unknowns (according to Rumsfeld’s analytical framework there technically should be no questions below, but I am defying him by putting questions I don’t know if there is an answer to, here)

Will I ever get faster at chopping?

What will happen in Lebanon as the internal political crisis and the Syria crisis do not abate?

What am I doing here? Will the meagre knowledge and experience I have acquired be of any consequence?

I am going one up on old Rumsfeld and adding two more categories.

Rhetorical questions:

Why is it not fooking possible to walk more than 10 metres without having to go around a car taking up the whole footpath or having the car reverse into you?

Crowdsourcing questions (this category would have been unpopular with Rumsfeld during certain decision-making processes I suspect)

What should I do for my last three weeks here?

What should I do after that?

Why am I here?

Answers on a postcard/comment….

Anyway, in an attempt to answer question 2.3.1, I hosted a modest Lebanese dinner party last night. This was made possible through my temporary residence in a bachelor pad loaned by a generous friend who is away on holiday for 10 days (in exchange for plant care, a verrrry dangerous bargain indeed), and my very flexible work schedule, allowing me to spend two days cooking and one day washing up. I am proud to say that in true Lebanese style I made enough to feed at least three times my 3-guest party, so there will be a round 2 tonight.

This was the menu and the response:

Aperitivo:

A Romeo and Juliet cocktail – many mmms

Mezze:

Mutabbal – at least two mmms

Arnabit bi tahina (cauliflower with tahini dressing)- at least three mmms, one ‘molto buono’ and a request for takeaway

Tabbouleh – half-hearted mmm

Mains:

Mujaddara hamra – one mmm, one request for takeaway

Fattet batinjen (aubergine stew with garlicky yoghurt and baked bread) – two mmm, one request for takeaway

Freekeh djeij  (smoked green wheat with chicken in spices) – no detectable mmm, but I liked it!

Dessert:

Beklawa bi halib (milk baklava) – three mmms, one molto buono and one takeaway request.

Unfortunately I took no photos but here’s one of my bachelor pad:

  
For now, I’ll leave you with the simple baklava recipe:

Ingredients:

5 cups milk

1 cup coarse semolina

¾ cup sugar

¼ cup rose water

¼ cup orange blossom water

sweet breadcrumbs (there is something here called kaak matron or chapelure, but digestive biscuits crumbled could also work)

butter

chopped pistachios for garnishing

Method:

Mix and heat the milk, semolina, rose and orange blossom water and sugar in a pan. Bring to a simmer and stir frequently until thickened.

Grease a baking tray (the mixture should be about 2.5cm deep) with butter and a scatter of breadcrumbs

Pour in the mixture and leave to cool and set.

Once set, slice into approx. 2.5x3cm pieces

Top with slivers of butter and sprinkle of breadcrumbs

Pop into a preheated oven at 150 degrees for 7-10 minutes, just enough for the butter and breadcrumbs to turn golden

Leave to cool and scatter chopped pistachios on top.

Enjoy!