Ramadan Special: Oven Cheese Fatayer

Few weeks ago I discovered a new ingredient, Lavash bread. I have always seen it on Middle Eastern grocery shops in West Ealing but I never thought about trying it until recently, and what a discovery! Lavash is a type of very thin bread native to Turkey, Iran, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The bread is a beautifully versatile ingredient that can be used to make pastries, borak and even oven samosa. For those of you familiar with Syrian breads, lavash is somewhat a cross between Saj bread and Tanoor Bread.

In Ramadan pastries has an essential role on the Iftar table. It adds a nice variety to the meal and nice side to a warm bowl of soup. Cheese, meat and spinach are the classic fillings.

For today's recipe I tried to create a cheese filling that doesn't require a trip to a Middle Eastern shop. I wanted to make a cheese filling that resembles the taste of that used in cheese borak in Syria but without the use of any "specialty" cheeses. I will have to say, the experiment was a great success. Even better than I expected!

Of course using Lavash bread defies the purpose of this whole exercise. So if you want to keep "high street supermarket only" tag to your dish you can use filo pastry or even puff pastry although the latter will produce a completely different dish.

Here is my Oven Baked Cheese Fatayer recipe:

Lavash bread 400 g
Feta 250g
Grated mozzarella 250g
Parsley 50g
Butter 50g
Black pepper
one Egg

Heat the oven to 200 degrees.

Mash the feta cheese with a fork and mix it with Mozzarella, chopped parsley, egg, salt and freshly ground black pepper. If your mix is too thick you can add a splash of milk. Be careful not to add too much other wise you will end up with a soggy pastry base.

Butter the bottom of a small baking tin. Add two layers of the bread brushing each layer with melted butter. Spread halt the cheese mixture then another bread layer, more cheese then the top bread layer. Brush the top generously with butter to get a crispy finish.

Bake in the oven for twenty minutes until the top is golden. Let cool for few minutes, cut to individual portions and serve.

Ramadan Special: Vermicelli Chicken Soup

Another year passed very quickly and Ramadan is here again. Although I am not particularly the religious type, I can't ignore the presence of the holy month. The culinary tradition of Ramadan is incomparable to any time of the year. The whole month is a celebration of food, drinks and sweets.

Today's dish is chicken vermicelli soup, a firm childhood favourite. Nice and strongly flavoured tangy soup, a perfect start for a Ramadan Iftar evening meal. Outside Ramadan the soup would make an excellent homely starter especially if you have some left over chicken stock and breast meat. Above all, this is the perfect meal if you are not feeling well. If chicken soup is the "Jewish Penicillin" this is definitely its Syrian counterpart.

There are many variations to the recipe. I cook mine with tomato paste and shredded chicken. Some people use meat balls or no meat at all, just nice stock. You can omit the tomato paste if you wish or even fry the vermicelli in a little oil to give them colour and a different flavour before cooking them.

Here is my Vermicelli Soup recipe:

Chicken stock 500mls
Shredded chicken meat, a handful
Vermicelli pasta, a handful
Tomato paste 1tbs

To see the Syrian way of cooking chicken and making a delicious stock check my Chicken Fatteh recipe.

Bring the stock to boil. Dissolve the tomato paste. Add the chicken meat and the vermicelli. Cook for 15 minutes until the pasta is fully cooked. Add salt and pepper to taste. The soup will thicken slightly because of the tomato paste but the consistancy should remain fairly runny.


Spinach Stew

I haven't cooked spinach since I met my wife few years ago. Although it was one of my favourite vegetables to eat as a child, Nada didn't like it so I didn't bothered cooking it. I never questioned what about spinach she didn't like. Then it all came clear. I had the misfortune of trying Sabzi!

Sabzi for those who don't know it is a Persian way of cooking spinach along with few other green herbs. The dish is also popular in Iraq especially in the south of the country. Sabzi was by far the worst thing I ever tasted in my life, and trust me I don't make such statement lightly. Everything was wrong about Sabzi. The combination of the herb, spices and the overpowering dried lime didn't work for me at all. Apologies to my Iranian and Iraqi readers who like the dish.

No wonder my wife didn't like spinach if this is the only version she tried. You can't taste the spinach among all these overpowering flavours.

Spinach is one of these delicate flavoured vegetable and to make the most of it you need to use with similarly gentle flavoured ingredients. Italians got it absolutely spot on using spinach with the equally delicate Ricotta cheese. Persians (Sabzi) and Indians (Sag Aloo) got it wrong in my book.

Last week I went on the mission of setting the record straight and introducing my wife to the way Syrians cook spinach.

I cook my spinach stew-style with braised lamb cubes but you can make an easier and much quicker version using minced meat. The latter is the more common version in Syria.

Here is my Spinach Stew with Braised Lamb recipe:

Lamb cubes 400g
Spinach 600g
One medium onion
Chopped green coriander
Garlic 2 cloves
Pepper 1/2 tsp
Allspice 1/2 tsp
Two pods of Cardamom (optional)
Two cloves (optional)
Olive oil

Start by browning the lamb cubes in olive oil in a heavy-bottom pot. Once brown on all sides roughly cut the onion and add to the pot. Season with salt, pepper, allspice cardamom and cloves. Cover with boiling water. Bring back to boil then turn the heat to medium and let the meat simmer until fully cooked and falling away with gentle pressure. It usually takes between one and two hours depending on the quality of the lamb and the size of the cubes.

Braising lamb and the using the resulting gravy is a very popular method in Syrian cooking. This is usually the base for most stew dishes. Chicken is usually prepared in a similar manner before the meat is taken of the bone and used in the different dishes. I like to add the cloves and cardamom to take the fatty edge of lamb meat and to add an "Arabic" flavour to my dishes. They serve a similar purpose of Bouquet Garni in French cooking.

Back to the spinach stew, remove the cardamom and cloves and some of the stock if you made a large amount. You will need almost 250mls of stock for that amount of spinach. Add more or less according to your taste and how you like your stew.

Add the spinach to the pot, cover and cook for five minutes. Add a handful of chopped coriander and crushed garlic. Cover and cook for another five minutes.

Serve with a wedge of lemon, nice crusty bread and vermicelli rice.