CHOP IT UP!
This week, Patrick Skinner doesn’t mince words
If someone says the word “Mince” to me, dozens of images appear in my mind, mostly related to food. Some of the very worst food I have ever had to eat was based on meat that had been put through an electric or manual mincer. It was bad because the cook had used old, pre-cooked or tired, fatty or gristly old cuts of some poor animal, thinking that by chopping it fine it would miraculously become tasty and edible. Much institutionalised cooking – in hospitals, the armed forces, prison, to name a few – was, and in some places still is, awful. I remember an R.A.F. Camp in which I was once incarcerated, where the smell of the “mince” invaded an area a hundred metres or more away from the “cook house”. No wonder I was slim in those days.
Ever since humans have cooked, it has been customary to use up all parts of the animal and the best way of dealing with tougher, or old, parts is to chop or cut them into very small pieces, which are likely to be less difficult to masticate.
Meat is “minced” by turning it through a machine that cuts (and/or tears) it into tiny bits. And the most popular meal in the world is produced from such bits. I refer, of course, to the Hamburger, which has nothing to do with the pig, but according to legend, started life in that German seaport.
Until recently, in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions, finely chopped meat simply meant lamb or goat. It was finely chopped for good reason. The animals had to forage dry arid land and stony hillsides for their food. Most males went to the pot young, leaving flocks of females to provide daily milk and fair amount of edible flesh, fat and muscle at the end of their lives. There being no cold storage or refrigeration, beasts were slaughtered when the need arose – either for sale, barter or family consumption. And then, because of the climate, apart from sometimes in winter, the carcass didn’t hang about, maturing and becoming relaxed and less tough. So, if the meat was barbecued, very sharp knives were used to cut off the thinnest slivers.
But for many dishes, it was chunks cooked long in a pot (a favourite of Cypriots, of course, our delicious “Kleftiko”). The alternative, pieces cut very, very finely into “mince”, seems to have been more to the liking of Turkish and Arab cooks. Here I use the word “cut”, because there are chefs who believe that a mincing machine tears the fibres of the meat, so they use a fine knife to cut, cut and cut again into a fine texture. I have to say that since retiring I have had the time to do this and I think the end result is better. 1-2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped 1/2 tsp ground cumin, a pinch or two of ground cinnamon, and a pinch of chilli pepper. You may use these spices in quantities to please your taste.
Salt and pepper
1. Put all the ingredients into a large bowl and mix well (hands are best for this). 2. Cover and refrigerate for one hour. 3. Make 12 slightly elongated balls from the mixture. 4. If barbecuing or grilling you may thread two or three balls on to skewers (if using wooden ones, soak them in water or lemon juice for 30 minutes first). 5. Cook quickly, turning regularly. 6. Or, heat a little olive oil in a heavy non-stick frying pan, flatten the balls into patties and fry them quickly for 2 – 3 minutes each side.
7. Serve with griddled pitta bread and strained yogurt. Tahinisalata matches the kebabs well. It’s a nice dish for roast potatoes too! As for salads, a Lebanese Fattoush wants a lot of beating, and I have the recipe for that. You may, if you prefer, delete the Halloumi – but I think it adds another lovely flavour layer.
300g / 11 oz diced tomatoes (I like to remove the skins and seeds)
300g / 11 oz diced cucumber (these may be diced with the skins on but wash well first)
1 good hearty lettuce, outer green leaves removed and chopped, or several small “Romaine” lettuce
1 des-sp each of chopped parsley, fresh mint and fresh coriander A handful of rocket leaves Salt-Pepper to taste 12 5mm / 1/4” slices of Halloumi 2 pieces of thin Pitta bread (or Arabic bread) 1. Shake any moisture from the lettuce, rocket and herbs and pat dry. 2. In a Large bowl combine the lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, parsley, mint, coriander and the rocket. 3. Toss together well. 4. Cut the bread into thin slivers about 2.5 cms / 1 inch long and stir fry in 2 tbsp of hot olive oil until golden and crispy. Remove from the oil and set aside.
5. Make the dressing: mix 3 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp lemon juice, salt and pepper and a pinch of Sumac. 6. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and gentle toss well. 7. In a hot frying pan put 1 tbsp of olive oil, slice the Halloumi quite thin and fry quickly until sizzlingly golden on both sides.
8. Sprinkle the slivers of crispy bread over the salad, gently turn in, arrange the fried Halloumi on top, add a couple of sprigs of parsley and serve.