Lamb with okra, Levantine salads and homemade harissa

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So the sun was shining and the night before, I’d been to Brother Hubbards, a little restaurant in Dublin which features Middle Eastern style, festive food as its table d’hote menu. I couldn’t resist returning to those sun kissed dishes that are, often all at once, aromatic, sweet and spicy and, almost above all, colourful. They are wholesome, too, with those essential additions of grains, nuts, seeds and fruits.

It takes time to put all these things together but when you do, you can pack away what’s left over and it’ll keep in the ‘fridge for another couple of days so you can eat it for breakfast, lunch or simply mezze munchies, when you want to lounge about, over a glass of crisp and zingy, white wine, like a chenin blanc.

The main meat dish, lamb with okra, is very simple to make, with a simple range of ingredients and a powerful flavour.

Ingredients

(for two people)

  • 200 g of lean, boneless lamb, cubed.
  • 1 onion
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • ½ cup of tomato pureé
  • 1 tsp Lebanese 7 spice powder
  • 50g of okra, trimmed
  • 1 cup of olive oil

Heat the olive oil in a pan, at a low setting and when warm, add the chopped onion, then the garlic, until softened. Now add the lamb cubes and increase the heat so the lamb browns, evenly. When the lamb has been browned, cover it with water, put a lid on the pot and cook for half an hour, keeping an eye on it so the water doesn’t evaporate and the lamb gets burned. While this is cooking, heat your oven to 190º, place the okra on a baking dish and toss in olive oil, then place it in the hot oven for 30 minutes. After half an hour, add the 7 spice seasoning to the lamb, along with the tomato pureé and the okra and return the mixture to simmer for another hour over a low to medium heat, until the sauce has reduced and the lamb is tender and cooked. Season with salt and black pepper and serve with Lebanese flat bread.

For the salads, there is an infinite variety of things you can put together. I like to have something green, something crunchy, something sweet and fruity, something hot and a whole lot of spicy aromas.  You can make hummus with sun dried tomatoes, bell peppers or beetroot. You can add nuts like pine nuts, walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts. Then, there’s dates, prunes, apricots or sultanas; fresh fruit, like apples, oranges, figs or pomegranate.

Every time I visited New York in the ’90s, I always made a point of eating, at least once, in a small Lebanese restaurant on Broadway, near Greenwich Village. I don’t know if it’s still there but, if I close my eyes and clear my thoughts, I can bring myself back there and the wonderful ‘fattoush’ house salad, for example, which boasted fresh green herbs like mint and parsley, chard and baby spinach, pine nuts and sesame seeds and above all, it was always ringed with segments of the juiciest mandarin oranges and flecked with pomegranate seeds.

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While I could never emulate Ibrahim’s, mouth watering salad, I knew I needed something like it, for the green part of my meal. So I mixed shreds of baby gem lettuce and baby spinach with fresh mint and parsley, quarters of cherry tomatoes, cubed, fresh cucumber, finely sliced onion and green peppers, finely diced, cubes of dried apricot and lightly, dry roasted, pumpkin seeds. On top of this, I added a dressing made of white vinegar, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and lemon zest with a tsp of zumac.

There are some ingredients, like seeds, nuts and grains, that are essential in all Middle Eastern dishes but, just as essential, are lemon, aubergine and legumes, particularly chick peas. Now, it would spoil a meal if all these ingredients were chucked in to every dish so I went for aubergine, which I pierced, all over, with the sharp point of a knife and placed in a hot oven until it softened. Many recipes tell you to peel them, I don’t. When it’s soft, cut it up into chunks, add some lemon zest and juice, half a cup of tahini, a clove of, finely chopped, garlic and a tblsp of olive oil and then pureé. Sprinkle it with pomegranate seeds to add a fruity crunch and serve.  It’s my equivalent of a baba ganoush and it’s delicious and filling, even when served alone with leaves of crisp, baby gem, lettuce.

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Next, a beet salad that is as simple as it is tasty. Slice four, cooked beetroots, finely. Slice a red onion, finely. Add 2 tblsps of red wine vinegar and allow to stand for ten minutes or more, before serving.

Finally, a salad of shredded carrot and ginger with spring onion, sliced, and dry roasted sesame seeds with golden sultanas and 1 tblsp of balsamic vinegar.

For the harissa, I mixed six fresh and two dried chillies, together, and roasted them with a little olive oil for twenty minutes in a warm oven. To this mixture I added lemon zest, finely chopped garlic, salt and pepper, and a tsp each, of cumin and coriander seeds, dry roasted. Add some more olive oil and whiz them all together into a paste.

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Lamb Fatteh

A fatteh is a Levantine dish distinguished by the inclusion of crispy, even stale, pitta and yoghurt. In this one, I’ve used lamb but you could substitute shredded chicken or make a purely vegetarian version with aubergine, chick peas or courgette, or any combination, thereof.

The ingredients are easy to come by and will be available from the nearest Middle Eastern store or even your local supermarket. The salad I made to accompany it is equally simple to put together and very flavoursome and refreshing. Fatte is often served as a breakfast dish and an evening snack.

Ingredients

  •  200g minced lamb
  • 2 tomatoes, deseeded and chopped
  • half a cup of pine nuts
  • 2 cups of baby spinach
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 onion
  • ½ tspn of cinnamon
  • 1 tspn cumin powder
  • 1 tspn of 7 spice powder (see previous recipe)
  • 2 cups of fresh, natural yoghurt
  • 1 cup of parsley, finely chopped
  • ½ cup of dried or 1 cup of fresh mint

Heat a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil in a saucepan. Add the minced lamb and stir, until brown. Now add the onion and garlic, both finely chopped and cook for a couple of minutes until softened. Add the chopped tomatoes and the spices. Allow to cook, on medium heat, for another three minutes.

Place pittas in a heated oven until crispy and warm.

in another pan, dry roast some pine nuts until they colour and release their oils.

Mix some of the garlic and mint with the yoghurt and set aside.

The lamb should now be ready to plate up in a serving dish. Once its transferred, take the two cups of baby spinach and add it to the hot lamb so it wilts. sprinkle a handful of the chopped parsley over the top. Now add a dollop of the yoghurt mixture and finally, sprinkle the toasted pine nuts on top.

Cut up the warm and crispy pitta bread and decorate the serving dish so each piece is available for soaking up the lamb. Fatteh is a communal dish.

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Potato and fennel salad

Ingredients

  • 2 potatoes
  • 1 head of fennel
  • 1 lemon
  • olive oil
  • ½ tspn sumac¹
  • green or black olives (deseeded)
  • parsley
  • sesame seeds
  • ½ tspn coarse grain mustard

Boil the two potatoes for twenty minutes, then drain and reserve.

Cut the fennel in fine strips.

Toast the sesame seeds, gently.

When the potatoes are cold enough to handle, cut them up in quarters and place in a serving dish. Now add the fennel strips, the olives and the parsley.

Mix the olive oil, juice of one lemon and the spoon of mustard, to make the dressing. Pour this over the salad and add the sesame seeds. Sprinkle the sumac over the salad.

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¹sumac  Sumac is a dark red powder made from the crushed and dried berries of the sumac bush, a plant that is common in north Africa. It has a very pleasant citric, lemony flavour.

Turkey and rice stuffed Courgette with coriander yoghurt dressing

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The sun is shining, spring is in the air and there’s nothing better than a healthy, fresh tasting dish like this, courgettes stuffed with a spiced rice and turkey mixture and topped with a dressing made of natural yoghurt, coriander, lemon juice and lime zest.

Ingredients

  • 1 cupful of minced turkey or chicken
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • courgettes – as many as you need
  • 1 cupful of basmati rice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon Lebanese 7 spice powder
  • 2 tablespoons of tahini (sesame paste)
  • 1 pt of chicken stock
  • juice of one lemon
  • fresh lime zest
  • coriander
  • salt and pepper
  • half a cup of pine nuts

Cut the courgettes, length ways, in half. Brush with olive oil and season with salt and black pepper, then place them in an oven, pre-heated to 200∘, until soft. Remove, set aside and allow to cool.

Put the stock in a saucepan and bring to the boil, then add the rice.

Heat a little oil in a saucepan. Add the minced turkey (or chicken) and cook until it begins to brown. Now add the garlic, cinnamon, Lebanese 7 spice* and tahini and cook at medium heat, for another two minutes.

Take the courgette halves and remove the seeds. Fill the boats with the turkey and rice mixture, drizzle with olive oil and return to the oven, for five minutes, until warm through.

Dressing

Add the chopped coriander, lemon juice and lime zest to the natural yoghurt and mix well.

Dry roast the pine nuts in a pan until slightly coloured.

Remove the stuffed courgettes and plate. pour the dressing over the top and then sprinkle with the roasted pine nuts.

*Lebanese 7 Spice is slightly different to the 7 Spice mixtures used in other North African cuisines. It can be bought, ground and mixed, at most Middle Eastern food stores but if you take the time and the trouble to do it yourself, the results are better. The ingredients are Allspice, black peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, fenugreek and ginger.

 

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Pork Belly, Chinese flavour

Pork Belly, Chinese flavour is a simple dish, good value and slow cooked. This is not a Chinese recipe, though, but there are some Chinese flavours that compliment this dish, like star anise.

If you live in Dublin, you’ll be used to the taste of pork. I’m sure that at one time in Dublin there were more pork butchers than general victuallers. Most of those old pork butchers are concentrated in working class areas in the city, a reflection of pork’s place in the class structure.

In my neighbourhood, Dublin’s Liberties, there are, at least, four butcher shops within a two minute walk from my home. And the good thing about them is nothing goes to waste.

The Liberties, as the area is known, is a working class enclave in the centre of the city. It takes its name from the old manorial jurisdictions granted to neighbouring townlands of the city of Dublin from the 12th century. The liberties were granted, under license, to the landowners of the manorial districts and they, in turn, undertook the responsibility of administering these districts and provided such essential services as water, lighting, sewage and quite often, a police and judicial service. Liberties granted tyo these districts included tax free status and even the right to collect taxes in their own districts.

Through the centuries, these districts became the hub of local trade and industry. For example, in the 17th century a huge area of The Liberties was populated by French Hugeunots , escaping French religious persecution. They established The Liberties as the hub of a weaving industry that carried on up to the 19th century.

The Liberties also had abattoirs, distilleries and breweries, the most famous of the latter is, of course, Guinness of James’s Gate. When I first lived in The Liberties, beside Weaver Square in the Hugeunot Tenters’ district, in the 1970s, the two most distinctive odours in the neighbourhood were the smell of cooking hops and curing pork.

Pork was cheap and, for that reason, popular. In the 19th century many families kept pigs and chickens in their own yards and laneways, neighbourhood slaughterhouses flourished. One of the most popular dishes, associated with The Liberties, in particular, was Coddle, a stew of potatoes, onions, pork sausage and chunks of off cut, cured ham. But that’s for another blog.

Pork belly is a long neglected dish in fine cooking that in recent years has enjoyed a resurgence and even, elevation, to haute cuisine. I call my recipe, Chinese flavoured because while I cooked it in a fashion I’ve known since my childhood days, I added a few spices, like star anise, to give it a little more zing.IMG_3762

Ingredients

  • one pork belly
  • two sticks of celery
  • one onion
  • two star anise
  • two cloves of garlic
  • two green cardomoms
  • one tsp fennel seeds
  • one pint of chicken stock

Score the pork belly skin, diagonally, with the tip of a sharp knife. Turn 180∘ and score again, diagonally, until you have a diamond pattern of scores, exposing the fat. Rub coarse sea salt, liberally, into the skin.

Heat oven to 180∘.

Heat an oven dish on the top of the stove and add a tblspn of olive or vegetable oil. Add the onion, finely sliced and the celery, chopped and sweat gently. add the garlic, chopped. Smash the star anise and cardomoms and add them to the sweating vegetables.

Place the pork belly in the hot pan, skin down, to give it some colour and seal in the salt.

Add the fennel seeds to the sweating mixture and then place the pork belly in the pan, skin side up. add the chicken stock up to the level of the skin but not covering it. Bring this mixture to the boil before placing it in the hot oven. Allow to slow cook for 2.5 to 3 hours.

Remove the pork belly and set aside to rest.

Drain the fat from the top of the reduced mixture in the pot and place, once more, on a, heated, stove ring. Add a spoon of Dijon mustard and stir to integrate, while the sauce reduces some more.

Slice the pork, preferably with a serrated edge knife, before serving, with the sauce.IMG_3763