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.