Lemon, Garlic and Olive Oil

If you have been following my blog for some time you must have noticed that Syrian cuisine, especially in Damascus, is very light on the spice side. In many many dishes salt and pepper, or allspice, is the only seasoning. We make up for this by using fresh strongly flavoured ingredients. We love lemon for example and we use it quite a lot in our food. Olive oil, fresh coriander and garlic all feature heavily in our cuisine.

These ingredients are often used in combinations. The most obvious example is green coriander and garlic. These are usually fried very gently in warm olive oil and used in an endless number of dishes.

Today's recipe uses one of these classic combination: lemon, garlic and olive oil. The three flavours matches perfectly together. They work very well with grilled chicken. You can use them as a marinade or to drizzle over your spatch-cooked barbecued chicken or even a dipping sauce.

Today's dish is one of my all time favourites and regular dish on my big family dinners. We always called this dish in our household
Oven Potato with Lemon, Garlic and Oil. Although chicken is the main ingredient in this dish for some reason we always ignored its presence in the name. May be because the main flavour is not the chicken but the strongly flavoured potatoes. Anyway, if you don't like the name call it Lemon Chicken Roast or Oven Chicken and Potato or any other name you like.

You can use any cut of chicken you like. Thighs, legs, breasts, on or off the bone, with or without skin all works fine. I even used chicken wings only on occasions. Today I am using cubed chicken breast purely because this is what I had in the fridge. The only thing to keep in mind that you need to adjust cooking times depending on the cut and the size of chicken pieces you are using.

P.S. this dish is heavy on lemon , garlic and olive oil so if you don't like any of these ingredients this dish is not for you. Similarly if you are looking for a dish to cook for a romantic dinner and you are planning some bed-time activity then again this garlic infused dish is not for you.

Here is the recipe:

Chicken Breast 500g (or any chicken cut you like)
Potato 1kg
Garlic 8-10 cloves
Two lemons
Olive oil 100mls
Preserved chopped chillies (or Syrian red pepper paste) 2tbsp
Chilli powder (optional)
Salt 1tsp
Pepper 1tsp
Vegetable oil

Put the chicken in a freezer plastic bag. Add the crushed garlic, lemon juice, salt, pepper, olive oil and the chillies. Mix well and let marinade in the fridge for few hours.

Heat the oven to 200C.

Peel the potatoes and slice into 5mm slices. Deep fry the potato and vegetable oil till almost done.
Drain and layer the potato in the roasting dish. Arrange the chicken on top of the potato. Add all the marinade juices to the roasting tin. Top with hot water up to the level of the potato.

Bake in the oven till the chicken is fully cooked. You will need 25-30 minutes for chicken breast. If you are using thighs or chicken breast whole on the bone you will need 45-60 minutes and you will need to turn the chicken for the skin to brown on both sides.

Serve with Arabic bread.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 16. Sujuk

Today's main ingredient is Sujuk, Lebanese style this time as opposed to the Damascene version I posted a recipe of couple of months ago. I talked a lot about sujuk at that time so I will not repeat the whole thing to avoid boring you away.

Sujuk is a spicy sausage introduced to the Levantine cuisine through the Armenian community in Syria and Lebanon. The classic way to use sujuk is fried with eggs. Alternatively it can be used in a variety of stews. As a mezze I like to slice the thick sausages and grill or fry them.

You can buy Lebanese style Sujuk in London from Green Valley on Edgware Road.

Alternatively you can buy them from Omnia Deli. I highly recommend this place. It is a nice deli, butcher, bakery and a small food counter with couple of tables to eat in. They serve all kind of Fatayer (pizza-style pastry with different toppings), the usual grilled meats sandwiches and a selection of mezze. They have a new chef (I forgot the name, Abo Abdo, I think! sorry) who joined from the previously very popular Middle east Food Market in Acton. The best thing in the shop is their beautiful sausages and pastirma. All home made and all really good. The only down side to this place is their location in Park Royal. It is out of most people way and you need a special trip if you don't live close by.

Here is how to prepare sujuk for mezze:
Three Sujuk sausages
Rocket leaves

Slice the sausages diagonally to get long pretty strips. Grill on a very hot griddle pan till slightly charred on the outside. Serve on bed of rocket leaves and tomato slices.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 15. Beetroot Mutabal

This dish is not a traditional Syrian mezze. It made its way onto the menu of few Damascene restaurants in the last few years. Travel guides favourite, Lailas, serves a version of this dish that was much appreciated by ABC reporter on her visit to Syria.

I will have to admit that I never tried this dish in a restaurant so I don't have a reference point. I just made up this recipe the way I like it. It is essentially the same recipe I use for
Mutabal but I use beetroot instead of aubergine. The combination of the sweet taste of the beetroot, sour yoghurt and the earthy flavour of tahini works surprisingly well together. This dish works very well served next to lamb kebabs.

Here is my Beetroot Mutabal recipe:
Cooked Beetroot 250g

Tahini 2tbsp

Yoghurt 2tbsp



In a food processor start add the beet root tahini and yoghurt. Process till fine and well mixed. Add a squeeze of lemon and salt to taste.

Spread in a plate. Decorate with pine nuts and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve with Arabic flat bread.

30 Minutes BBQ!

The other day I finished work quite late and my wife was working from home and very busy. We were starving so I wanted something quick but I wasn't in the mood for a take away. I wanted something that tastes of home.

So on my way back
I went to tesco for some inspiration. In the meat isle I found chicken breasts ready cut into cubes. Nothing could possibly cook quicker. Perfect choice but what to do with it? I walked into the vegetable isles and I found these most beautiful Ramiro peppers. I love these peppers, sweet and delicate, I especially like them grilled. I got an idea. I am going to make a barbecue!

Not a full barbecue at seven in the evening in the middle of winter of course, but one Syrian variety, Shish Tawook.

Shish Tawook is a chicken breasts kebab very popular in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey were the name originates. There are many different recipes on marinading the chicken but they all share an essential ingredient, yoghurt.

In Syria Shish Tawook is always served with Toum, a delicious garlic sauce/dip that marries beautifully with all grilled chicken varieties. Due to time restrains I didn't make a proper Toum (I will post a recipe sometime in the future) but I made my super-fast Toum instead. Shish tawook is either served as a part of a barbecue platter with bread, mezze ... etc. or, quite often, as a sandwich in a flat bread roll or a bun.

Shopping is done. Now I am walking home, almost seven, and I set myself 30 minutes target from start to finish.

Walked through the door, stop watch started. Oven turned on to 200 degrees, Arabic bread out of the freezer.

Started to marinate the chicken, yoghurt, paprika, salt .... etc. Red onion and red pepper chopped.

Griddle pan on the cooker on maximum temperature. Meat and vegetables started to go onto the skewers.

Pan still not hot enough. I should start preparing the salad.

Finally, chicken is on the griddle pan. Salad chopping still going.

Chicken nicely charred on one side. Turned to the other side and the pan into the oven. I am still on time, chicken needs 12-13 minutes in the oven.

Vinegar, sumac, olive oil, lemon juice ... salad is ready. Now to the garlic sauce.

Chicken still needs another minute or so in the oven. I will slice the cucumber pickle and get the sandwiches ready.

Chicken out of the oven. I only have a couple of minutes to take a decent photo for the blog.

Photos taken. Sandwiches ready. Salad in the plates. 45 seconds to spare.

Here is my home made shish tawook recipe:
Chicken breast cubes 400g

Red onion

Red pepper

For the Marinade:
Yoghurt 2tbsp
Vinegar 1tsp
Paprika 1tsp
Chilli powder 1/2tsp
Garlic powder 1tsp
Black pepper 1/2tsp
Olive oil

Super-fast Toum sauce:

Mayonnaise 4tbsp
Greek style yoghurt 2tbsp
White wine vinegar 1tsp
Garlic 3-4 cloves, crushed

Mix all the marinade ingredients, add the chicken and ideally leave in the fridge for a couple of hours. Cut the red peppers and the red onion into 1 inch squares. You can use green peppers or mushrooms if you wish. Once the chicken is marinated start to put it on the skewers alternating between a pieces of vegetables and chicken.

If it is summer cook on a coal barbecue in the garden. Otherwise heat a griddle pan till very hot. Put the chicken skewers and don't turn till one side starts to char to give the beautiful barbecue flavour. Once one side is ready turn the skewers and put the pan in a 200C hot oven to finish cooking for around 12 minutes. You can cook it fully on the griddle pan if you wish but I find the meat becomes too dry this way.

Mix all the ingredients of the Toum sauce with Salt and lemon to taste.

Serve the shish tawook with Arabic bread, toum, salad and whatever mezze you like. Or simply spread some of the toum sauce on the Arabic flat bread, add pickles and tomatoes if you wish and roll. In Turkey they serve the shish tawook with white rice and salad.

Vermicelli Rice, A Table Essential

When I was a young child I was such a fussy eater. Nothing I liked more than a warm plate of vermicelli rice with some yoghurt. My mum ,understandably, was not that keen on such a diet and she kept trying with me to eat different stuff. I am so glad she did as some of the things I hated as a child I can't live without now.

Vermicelli rice is by far the most common dish cooked in Syria. It is served almost on a daily basis in any Syrian house hold. It is not a meal on its own right but it accompanies main dishes. The rice is served next to vegetable stews, yoghurt based dishes and some oven baked ones.

Rice is not a native product of Syria or the rest of the Levant. And although some rice is grown in eastern parts of the country around the Euphrates, most of the rice consumed in Syria is imported. Historically speaking, apart from bread, the main forms of carbohydrate in Syrian diet came from bulgur and Freekeh (roasted green wheat grains). Although both are still widely consumed, nowadays rice is by far the most popular.

The perfect rice to use is a hotly debated issue. Long grain is the easiest to get right (hence the most popular) but short grain is the most tasty. That was my mum argument, so you know which type of rice I grew up eating. I used short grain rice to make vermicelli rice till I moved to London when I started using Basmati. Now I am totally converted, Basmati is the way to go.

Final note before the recipe; Is it Gordon Ramsay who appoints chefs based on their ability to cook boiled eggs? In Syria, the perfect cook is judged on his or her ability to cook this dish. The perfect rice should be well cooked; not over and not under. The rice grains should not be sticky but sticky enough if that makes any sense.

I truly believe this is the most difficult way to cook rice especially if you are using short grain. It could be very challenging to get it right the first time. You need to estimate the exact amount of water needed for the dish to cook beforehand as there is no bar boiling or draining excess water as with many rice dishes. Perfecting vermicelli rice comes with experience so don't be disappointed if you tried it and it didn't come out right, try again and you will get it perfect.

A couple of tips to help cook the perfect rice. First wash the rice properly before soaking to get rid of all the excess starch to prevent the rice coming out sticky. Secondly don't over-stir the rice. I always say you are only allowed to stir the rice twice; once at the mid point when you turn the heat down, and the second when you turn the heat off.

Here is my recipe:

Rice of your choice 2 cups
Vermicelli pasta a good handful
Ghee clarified butter 2 tbsp
Hot water

Wash your rice and soak in cold water for 20-30 minutes.

Start by melting the Ghee butter and add the vermicelli pasta. Stir continuously to prevent the pasta burning and get an even browning. You need to fry the pasta till dark brown.

Take the pot of the heat and add the hot water. The amount of water required varies depending the type of rice. Follow the packet instructions. As a general rule 2 cups of rice will need 3-3.5 cups of water. "Easy cook" rice will need less water.

Please be very careful not to burn yourself. Adding water to very hot butter will cause small melted butter droplets to fly out of the pot.

Return the pot on the cooker and add salt. Taste the water and don't worry if it is a bit salty as the rice will absorb the salt. Drain and add the rice to the boiling water and bring back to boil. Turn the heat to medium, cover and cook for ten minutes. Check the rice at this point and stir it very gently. Add a bit of boiling water if necessary.

Turn down the heat to as low as you can, cover and let the rice steam and finish cooking for another ten minutes. Stir for the second time and serve.