Food writer John Gregory-Smith shares recipes from the heart of Lebanon in Saffron in the Souks.
[Shish barak] SERVES 4
This is one of those incredible ancient dishes that you find in different guises all over the Levant. Shish barak are little meat-filled dumplings swimming in a yoghurt sauce. They resemble little hats or ears, hence the name, which is thought to come from the Persian words gosh e-barreh, or ‘lamb’s ear’. My shish barak are adapted from a recipe from the Mount Lebanon region. It’s not uncommon to bake the dumplings until golden, then toss them straight into the yoghurt sauce. I like the softer texture that comes from boiling, and an intense labna sauce.
FOR THE TORTELLINI
• 200g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
• 4 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for oiling
• 1 onion, finely chopped
• 250g minced lamb with 10 percent fat
• ½ teaspoon allspice
• 1 teaspoon dried mint
• sea salt
FOR THE SAUCE
• 400g labna [see recipe, opposite]
• 1 garlic clove, crushed
• juice of ½ lemon
• 40g butter
• 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper flakes
• 20g toasted pine nuts
• 1 teaspoon sumac
• a small handful of finely chopped mint leaves
1. Put the flour into a mixing bowl and add a pinch of salt. Mix well and pour in 125ml water. Bring together into a dough, then knead on a floured surface for 6-8 minutes until smooth. Place in an oiled bowl and leave to rest for 30 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat and add the onion and lamb. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 8-10 minutes until golden. Add the allspice, dried mint, a good pinch of salt and a few tablespoons of water to help bring everything together; mix well. Tip into a mixing bowl and leave to cool.
3. Divide the dough into 32 portions. Roll each one into a ball, then roll out into rounds about 8cm in diameter. Wet your finger and run it around the edge of one of the rounds.
4. Place a teaspoon of the filling in the middle. Fold the circle in half over the filling and seal. Pull the two sides together and gently squeeze them so that they stick. Place on a baking sheet lined with baking paper. Repeat with the rest of the dough portions.
5. Bring a large pan of water to the boil over high heat and pour in the remaining oil. Carefully add the tortellini in batches and cook for 2-3 minutes until fluffy. Drain and repeat with the rest.
6. To make the sauce, mix the labna in a small pan with the garlic, lemon juice, a good pinch of salt and 120-150ml of water into a smooth sauce. Stir over low heat for 4-5 minutes until warmed through.
7. Melt the butter in a small pan over medium heat. Add the Aleppo pepper flakes and a pinch of salt. Mix well and remove from the heat. Leave for 30 seconds to infuse.
8. To serve, swirl the yoghurt sauce on four serving plates and top each one with eight of the dumplings. Drizzle over the vibrant red butter and garnish with the pine nuts, sumac and mint leaves. Serve immediately.
MUM’S OKRA YAKHNI SERVES 4
You can’t beat the midweek meals that your mum used to make when you were growing up. Those simple food-hug dishes that could make a bad day disappear. In Lebanon this would be yakhni, a sumptuous stew made from a combination of meat, vegetables and pulses, cooked in a tomato sauce and served with rice. Every mum has their own recipe, which, to her kids, is the best. This one, for okra yakhni, is rich and wonderfully comforting and was lovingly passed on to me by some friends from Jezzine, south of Beirut.
• 6 tablespoons olive oil
• 600g lamb leg, cut into 2.5cm cubes
• 1 onion, finely chopped
• 6 garlic cloves, crushed
• a large handful of finely chopped coriander leaves and stalks, separated
• 4 tomatoes, finely chopped
• 2 tablespoons tomato purée
• 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
• ¾ teaspoon allspice
• 400ml lamb stock
• 350g okra, halved lengthways
• 30g walnuts
• sea salt
1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a casserole over medium heat. Add the lamb and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8-10 minutes until brown on all sides. Add the onion, mix well and cook for 4-5 minutes until soft. Add five of the garlic cloves, all of the coriander stalks and half the leaves. Season with a good pinch of salt and mix well. Stir-fry for 30 seconds until fragrant.
2. Tip in the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5-6 minutes until broken down. Add the tomato purée, 1 tablespoon of the pomegranate molasses, the allspice and the stock. Mix well. There should be enough liquid to just cover everything. Bring to the boil, cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook for 1 hour or until the lamb is tender.
3. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large frying pan over high heat. Add the okra and a good pinch of salt. Shake the pan and leave for 1-2 minutes to crisp up on one side, then stir-fry for 2-3 minutes until completely golden.
4. Tip the okra into the stew once the lamb is cooked. Increase the heat to medium-high and bubble away for 6-8 minutes, stirring occasionally, to reduce the sauce by half. Turn off the heat, cover and rest for 5 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, bash the remaining garlic with a little salt. Add the walnuts and remaining chopped coriander and bash until fine. Add the remaining olive oil and pomegranate molasses along with 2 tablespoons of water. Mix into a gorgeous salsa. Serve with the yakhni and rice.
SUMAC & SEVEN-SPICE ROAST CHICKEN SERVES 4
I come from a long line of chicken lovers. As kids we consumed so much of the stuff it’s a wonder that we never started clucking at each other. My mum would cook chicken in different guises, from roasted to grilled and curried to stewed. It was a midweek meal, a weekend feast or a sensational sandwich to snack on. Over the years I have dined on grilled chicken from all over the world and this recipe from the rich farming region of the Beqaa Valley is rocking. The marinade tenderises the meat and gives it an incredible depth of flavour. You can roast or barbecue the chicken and every time it comes out perfectly.
FOR THE MARINADE
• 5 garlic cloves, peeled
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 teaspoons Lebanese 7 spice or baharat
• 2 teaspoons dried oregano
• 1 teaspoon paprika
• 1 teaspoon sumac
• ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 2 cardamom pods, bashed
• juice of 1 lemon
• sea salt
FOR THE CHICKEN
• 1kg chicken thighs and legs, skin on
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• ¼ teaspoon paprika
• juice of ½ lemon
• 2 teaspoons za’atar
• sea salt
1. To make the marinade, bash the garlic into a paste with a little salt. Tip into a large bowl and add the olive oil, Lebanese 7 spice, oregano, paprika, sumac, cinnamon, cardamom and lemon juice. Mix well.
2. Add the chicken and toss together to coat the meat completely in the marinade. Cover and refrigerate for 3 hours or overnight if you are organised.
3. When you are ready to cook, preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan or gas mark 7 and tip the chicken onto a baking tray. Brush with the olive oil and sprinkle over the paprika. Roast for 40-45 minutes, turning halfway, until cooked through and tender.
4. Transfer to a serving dish and squeeze over the lemon juice. Scatter over the za’atar and a good pinch of salt. Serve immediately.
SYRIAN SPAGHETTI WITH POMEGRANATE & LENTILS
[Hurrak Osbao] SERVES 4
The exquisite cuisine of Syria, Lebanon’s sadly war-torn neighbour, is found all over the country, wonderfully helping to preserve its ancient food culture. This rather sensational pasta and lentil dish is called hurrak osbao, which means ‘burnt fingers’, in reference to it being so damn tasty you can’t help but go straight in with your hands. Although I have used more pasta than is traditional (hands up, the pasta fiend!), the flavours are spot on, combining fragrant coriander, dried mint, cumin and tangy pomegranate molasses. Despite being very distinct tasting ingredients, they marry together beautifully in this dish.
• 200g fettuccine
• 4 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
• 2 onions, finely sliced
• 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
• 2 handfuls of finely chopped coriander leaves
• 2 teaspoons dried mint • 2 cardamom pods, bashed • 1 teaspoon allspice
• 1 teaspoon ground cumin • ½ teaspoon sumac
• ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon • 400g tin green lentils, drained and rinsed
• 1 tablespoon tomato purée • 250ml vegetable stock • juice of ½ lemon
• 4 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
• 50g pomegranate seeds
• 20g walnuts, bashed into a fine rubble • sea salt
1. Cook the pasta in a large pan of boiling water for about 7-8 minutes until al dente. Drain and reserve 50ml of the pasta water.
2. Meanwhile, heat half the oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add half the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8-10 minutes until golden.
3. Put the garlic and half the coriander in the pan and mix well. Add the dried mint, cardamom, allspice, cumin, sumac and cinnamon. Season with a good pinch of salt and mix well.
4. Tip the cooked pasta and drained lentils into the pan with the onion, and add the tomato purée, stock, lemon juice and pomegranate molasses. Mix together really well. Cover, reduce the heat to low and cook for 5-6 minutes or until the pasta is beautifully tender. Add the reserved pasta water to help slick up the sauce and mix well.
5. Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a small non-stick frying pan over high heat and stir-fry the remaining onion for 6-8 minutes
until really golden and crispy. Adjust the heat if the onion gets too dark too quickly.
6. Divide the pasta mixture between four bowls. Garnish each with pomegranate seeds, walnuts, fried onions and the remaining coriander. Drizzle each bowl with olive oil; serve immediately.
ROSE WATER & PISTACHIO CHEESECAKE SERVES 8-10
My sensational cheesecake is inspired by various Lebanese desserts called madlouka, which means ‘to pour’ in Arabic. The madlouka in question had a round, crumbly semolina base that was spread out over a plate and topped with pillowy soft cream and loads of nuts. In my head it had a cheesecake format already. Rather than using semolina, I have used a traditional biscuit base and added ground pistachios for added oomph. The lusciously light topping is a mix of cream cheese and clotted cream, perfumed with rose water. Simplicity at its best.
FOR THE BASE
• 70g pistachio kernels
• 200g digestive biscuits
• 100g butter, melted, plus extra for greasing
• 2 tablespoons rose water
• 1 teaspoon mahlab (optional)
FOR THE TOPPING
• 227g tub of clotted cream [find at selected Woolworths stores]
• 400g cream cheese
• 100g icing sugar
• 1 tablespoon rose water
• 10g slivered Iranian pistachios, bashed until fine
• 1 tablespoon dried rose petals
1. To make the base, put the pistachios in a food processor and blend until fine. Add the biscuits and continue to blend until fine. Pour in the melted butter, rose water and mahlab, if using. Blend together.
2. Grease and line a 25cm springform cake tin with baking paper. Tip the biscuit base into the tin and spread out evenly. Press down with your hands to pack it together and form a solid base. Put into the fridge to chill for 30 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, scoop the clotted cream into a mixing bowl and whisk into soft peaks.
4. Put the cream cheese into a separate mixing bowl, add the icing sugar and mix until smooth. Scrape into the bowl with the clotted cream and pour in the rose water. Whisk together into firm peaks. Spoon in an even layer over the cheesecake base. Return it to the fridge and chill for 2 hours until firm.
5. Take the cheesecake out of the fridge and remove it from the tin. Slide the cheesecake onto a serving plate or board. Peel off the paper from the sides and garnish with the pistachios and rose petals. Serve immediately.
look for mahlab in a Middle Eastern store. It's a spice made from the ground stone of a cherry, and is a traditional spice for making dessert pastry in Lebanon.