Food From the Levant


Sorry I am writing this a bit late but I am currently swamped with work, research and few extra-curricular activities not running smoothly these days. Whinge over!


As I mentioned in my last post, Michael Hanson chef and owner of The Hearth Pizzeria and Bake House has kindly invited me to help run a charity event in aid of Syria. Michael wanted to serve food that represents the true flavours of The Levant. We wanted it to be a relaxed chilled evening with delicious authentic dishes, lovely wine and beautiful music. 




The menu


To start, we served six mezze dishes with a beautiful freshly baked flat bread:


Green Keshkeh


Mutabal


Baba Ghanouch


Tabbouleh


Chicken Livers with Pomegranate Molasses

Hummus with Sujuk


Ful Ma'ala (green Fava beans with garlic and coriander)


In addition I was hoping to serve a second hummus dish topped with Ful for vegetarians. However on the day it turned out we had Turkish tinned white beans instead. So, with a bit of improvisation, we ended up cooking the beans then crushing them with salt, cumin, Turkish sun-dried red peppers paste (Muhammara), garlic and lemon juice. It worked a treat!



For main, we served roast leg of lamb with Freekeh and roast vegetables with "Arabic" spin. The latter was cumin, lemon, garlic and chopped parsley. 

For desert, Michael have made beautiful ice creams with true Levantine flavours, pistachios and rose.




The Experience


This was my first experience cooking in a professional setting to 45 paying costumers. I will have to say, I loved every minute of it. Tiring and hot at times but very rewarding. 


The restaurant as I mentioned is pizzeria with a beautiful food fired oven. Although we had a small hob in the preparation area most of the cooking was done in the oven, an unusual method for cooking Freekeh, Ful and chicken livers. It worked well however.






"Food from the Levant" charity event at The Hearth, Lewes


Master baker Michael Hanson chef and owner of The Hearth Pizzeria and Bake House in Lewes Sussex will be hosting a charity event featuring the best food and wine the Levant has to offer. £10 of every ticket will go directly to Hand in Hand for Syria Charity to support much needed food and medicine projects.

Michael has kindly invited me to join his kitchen for the evening. We will be serving a spread of unique and little known mezze dishes, slow cooked meats, flat breads and desert accompanied by artisan Lebanese wine and live Nay music.

So If you fancy trying some home style Syrian food, help those in need in Syria or a bit of both then please join us for a wonderful evening of food, wine and music.

Tickets are £45 (£10 goes directly to charity)
The Hearth Pizzeria
Eastgate
Lewes

Sussex BN7 2LP

Facebook


Chocolate Bar for Syria


Almost a year ago I was contacted by Paul, the man behind Cocoa Hernando, asking for ideas to develop a Syria inspired chocolate bar. I quickly surveyed my Facebook friends for the most "Syrian" flavour to go into a chocolate bar. We came up with a variety of flavours from pistachio nuts to rose petal jam. However the clear winner flavour was orange peel.

I fed these back to Paul but he had a much better idea than our collective twenty Syrian brains, milk chocolate with pomegranate molasses. Genius! I couldn't wait to taste it.

Unfortunately it wasn't meant to be. Although the initial experiments tasted good, I was told, the chocolate bar didn't work for a variety of reasons and ended up being replaced with dark chocolate with Damascene rose. The final product is a beautiful bar of chocolate. The rose smell and flavour is subtle and marries beautifully with some of the best dark chocolate I have ever had. Just the right amount of sweet and bitter.

This post has nothing to do with the fact my name has made a cameo appearance on the back cover of the bar as an imaginary stall holder from Damascus. I genuinely love this chocolate bar. Those of you who follow my blog know I hardly ever endorse a commercial product. I have a two fold test; the product need to be related to Syria somehow and I need to personally love it. This bar meets both. 

The second reason I am writing this post is that 10% of the profits of the Syria chocolate bar will be donated to a Syrian Humanitarian Appeal in association with the Philanthropy Club 

Now to the negatives, and they are small in comparison. This is a premium chocolate bar and it is priced accordingly, £5 for 70 grams of chocolate. Also there is a slight whiff of Orientalism about the whole thing which might rub some people the wrong way. Having said that, I would still happily spend the five pounds. In fact I will buy the whole range to try the next time I am in Selfridges. 

Syria bar is available to order online or can be purchased from Selfridges, Harvey Nichols or from Cocoa Hernando pop-up market stalls.


Potato Makmora, my style



Lamb shanks were a revelation the first time I tried them. Believe it or not  that was only 5 years or so ago. 

In Syria we don't cook Lamb shanks the way God intended. Instead we take the meat off the bone cut it into cubes and use it to cook stews. The cut is called Mozat (موزات). I assume it is from the Arabic word Mozeh which means banana. I assume because the the shape of the muscle resembles a tiny banana. (The last three sentences are completely made up. Most likely it has nothing to do with Banana)

I never tasted Mozat until I cooked that lamb shank for the first time.

My mum bless her hates meat. She would have been a vegetarian without a doubt if vegetarians were invented at that time. She can't touch raw meat of any form. My dad does all the meal handling and prep at our house. My mum would just push the stuff into the pan with spoon. Once cooked it doesn't get any better. She would only eat read meat if it is in its purist form without any sinew or any trace of fat, preferably without meat flavour or texture! 

I don't know if you have seen a boiled lamb shank. It has a gelatinous connective tissue that holds the muscle together. If my mum ever see this on her plate she wouldn't eat for a week. So needless to say we never ever had lamb shanks in our house.

Enough about that and back to the recipe. This is a simple dish of lamb, potato and onion. I add carrots for extra sweetness. Cooked nice and slow in a clay pot with salt, pepper and allspice. Melting in your mouth tender. It is by far my favourite lamb dish and a stable on my dinner party menu.

Here is my recipe for four:

Four lamb shanks
Two potatoes
One onion
Four carrots
Chicken stock 150 mls
Salt and pepper to taste
Allspice  1tsp

Start by roughly chopping the onion. Peel carrots and potatoes and cut into one inch cubes. Then into the clay pot. Onions at the bottom, lamb shanks, carrots and potato. Pour the chicken stock season generously with freshly ground black pepper and rock salt. Generously sprinkle the the allspice over the meat and potatoes. Cover and into a cold oven.

I start the oven on 200c. After twenty minutes I turn in down to 165c and cook for three and a half hours. 

If you want to follow standard culinary procedure then brown the meat before adding to the pot. However I don't bother when I am cooking in a clay pot. The meat browns nicely as you can see in the picture.

Ramadan special: Iftar - Revisited

I first published this post five years ago. I read it today for the first time since then. It brought a tear to my eye remembering a time of peace and happiness in my Damascus. 

I decided to republish it as traffic to my blog triple in Ramadan form hungry readers looking for food inspirations. Since first posted I have cooked a lot of the dishes listed so I thought it will be helpful to update the post and embed all the links to save you the hassle. 




Ramadan is a month of peace and manic at the same time. The first day of fasting hits Damascus and the city goes into this form of transformation I find fascinating to watch. To understand what I am talking about all you need to do is watch Damascus over the period of 10 minutes around the Iftar meal. 

In the best of times driving in Syria is a risky business, so imagine being in the streets with a million or so drivers, all hungry, tired, severe nicotine deprivation, all trying to make their destination at the same minute. Ten minutes later and not a soul in the street. Millions of people around the city sitting with their family around Iftar tables. The atmosphere couldn't be more of peace, celebration and family.

Iftar (or Futoor as we call it in Syria) is the evening meal in Ramadan. Muslims fast during this month every day from sunrise to sunset. They refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and sex during these hours. Come the evening, they wait around tables full of all kinds of delicious food for the call to the evening prayers. Millions of hands move simultaneously to reach for that glass of water to break their fast.

Juice is a stable on any Iftar menu especially when Ramadan comes in Summer when you really need something to kill your thirst. Dates is another essential, it is the first thing Muslims should eat according to Islamic tradition.

After an empty stomach all day long you would want something soft and light to start your meal with. Soup (here and here) and Fatteh are the perfect starters to warm up your stomach in preparation for the delicious grub that coming its way.

Main dishes in Ramadan are no different to the usual food cooked outside the month but what make Iftar meal special is the wide variety of side dishes that line up the table. Salad and especially Fatoush is a must, so is Foul (broad bean salad) which is usually breakfast or supper dish outside Ramadan. Other sides on the menu are pastries (here, here and here), Sambosek and one of the many vegetarian cold dishes (here, here, here and here) we love in the Levant.

Sweets are more important in Ramadan than any other time. You really need some sugar to boost your blood glucose levels after a day of starvation. Filo pastry of some variation with Eshta (Arabic clotted cream) stuffing form the basis of most Ramadan sweets. Another Ramadan special is Na'eem (ناعم), a very large fried cracker (somewhat similar to Poppadoms) with a drizzle of sweet grape molasses.

Manic rush is done. Food is done. Syrian people then goes into their peaceful mood. They cosy up on sofas to enjoy a family night watching their favourite TV serial drama, Bab Al-Hara.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 31. Potato with garlic and coriander


Potato occupies an awkward spot in Syrian cuisine. 

It is not a true vegetables in the way we use vegetables in our cooking. We don't have the concept of meat and two veg. Instead vegetables are either cooked in some sort of a stew and served as a main or cooked in olive oil and served as a vegetarian side dish. Potato does not fit either. 

Potato is not our main source of carbohydrates. Rice and bulger occupy that spot. 

We don't use it to thicken soup. We don't use it as a pasty filler. We don't make hash brown with it... etc 

As a results potato is often neglected in many Syrian kitchen. I know many Syrian households that never used potato other than chips!

But look a bit under the surface and you would find amazing uses of the humble spud. One of my favourite dishes of all time is my chicken and potato bake with garlic, lemon and oil. Another favourite of mine is a simple breakfast dish of boiled eggs, boiled potato, salt and pepper swimming in olive oil. Another great dish is potato salad and I don't mean the one smothered in mayonnaise, but a fresh sharp salad with tomato, parsley lemon and olive oil. Something similar to my artichoke salad

Today's recipe is a very nice and simple mezze dish. Potato with olive oil garlic and coriander. Most people fry the potato cubes however I prefer them boiled. They absorb the olive oil and take on the garlic and coriander aroma.

Ingredients:

Two large potatoes cut into an inch cubes
4 garlic cloves (use more or less to taste)
A handful of coriander 
Olive oil 5 tbsp

Boil the potatoes in salted water.

Heat the olive oil on low heat. Add the garlic and coriander and remove immediately from the heat. You just need them welted. If you burn your garlic throw it and start again.

Add the potato. Mix well and season to taste. 

Shawarma Al-Jazeera, a taste of my childhood


If you are one of the handful of people still reading my blog after couple of years of only occasional posts you might know I was born and lived most of my childhood in Saudi Arabia. I hope this would not offend any of my Saudi readers but I really hated the place. We used to live in Abha. It was at the time a small town high up in the mountains close to Yemen. The nature and weather were stunning but that is where the beauty stopped for me. I didn't like anything else about the place. I hated the lack of freedom compared to our summer holidays in Syria. I hated the constant feeling of being a foreigner, and as you might expect being a foreigner in Saudi Arabia is not fun.

The highlight of my life in Saudi was our frequent visits to Jeddah, Saudi's second city on the Red Sea. We used to visit frequently because of dad's work or to sort out some paperwork from the Syrian Consulate or simple to spend the weekend. Jeddah at the time was such a cool place for a young boy. It had an Ikea, massive shopping centres, smoked turkey meat, Levi's Jeans, Authentic Syrian Halawet el-Jeben, and above all Shawarma Al-Jazeera.

Shawerma Al-Jazeera or as became known later Shawerma Shaker Al-Jazeera is allegedly Jeddah's first Shawerma place. A small hole-in-the-wall places with massive beef shawarma skewer. It was perfectly normal for a guy to park his GMC Superban and come to the window to order 40 shawarma sandwiches. In fact most of the orders were in double figures and there was a constant stream of costumers from early evening to early hours in the morning. To cope with the demand the place adopteded a conveyor belt operation. You place an order in one window and the process start. One guy cuts the meat, another mixes it on the hot griddle with the vegetables, the third put the meat in the bread, the next down the line add the sauce and wrap the sandwiches and finally the last guy hands you over your food from a second window. This process continued non-stop, I kid you not. 

The Shawarma itself is nothing like the Syrian or Lebanese variety. The meat has a lot more "Arabic" taste with more spices adapted to the local palate. After the meat is shaved of the massive skewer it was cooked on a flat griddle with onions, parsley, tomatoes and chillies. The sandwiches were made with small white subs and served with nothing but tahini sauce and chilli sauce.



Here is my attempt to recreate a taste of my childhood:

Sirloin or similar tender cut of beef 350g
One onion
One large tomato
One or two green chillis
Garlic 3 cloves
Parsley two handfuls
Yoghurt one tbs
Tahini one tbs
Olive oil 2 tbs
Salt
Spices 1/2 tsp each (feel free to improvise) I use black pepper, paprika, allspice, ground ginger and ground coriander

Slice the meat and the vegetable as thin as you can. Take your time. It makes a lot of difference. It allows the vegetables and meat to cook at the same time without losing much liquid and give authentic shawarma feel to the final product (and it is also therapeutic if like me you had a s**t day in the office).

Mix all the ingredients together and let marinade for half an hour at room temperature. 

Heat a large skillet or other heavy-bottomed pan until very hot. Add the meat mixture and cook on high heat for 10-15 minutes until very little liquid is left. The secret to success is to use a hot very large pan. The meat mixture needs to spread evenly in a thin layer. If you don't have a large enough pan cook in patches.

Serve the meat in Arabic flat bread, pita pockets or sub rolls for an authentic experience. Serve with tahini sauce and a chilli sauce of your choice.