One of my all-time favourite restaurants (which sadly closed, after the smoking ban came into being) was a Lebanese restaurant in Oxford. (There are two more, but they can’t match the quality of the food, or the jovial atmosphere.) It was a wonderful place to go in a large group, as they would just keep bringing out plates of mezze until everyone was stuffed. I found two of the dishes particularly moreish – small triangular pastries (sanbousek) filled with feta cheese, and a salad of garlicky broad beans. When dining in a smaller party I tended simply to order those, along with some grilled chicken and rice with vermicelli.
I have never managed to recreate any of them successfully (although I came close with the rice), and once we’ve moved and I’m settled into my new kitchen, it will be time to try again. This time I will have more of a clue, because I have been reading Taste of Beirut: 150+ Delicious Lebanese Recipes from Classics to Contemporary to Mezzes and More, which is written by Joumana Accad, the blogger behind the Taste of Beirut blog. I have been following the blog for some time (I can’t remember how long!), and it has an interesting flow of new and traditional Lebanese recipes, along with snippets about Lebanese life and plants. I am glad that it has solidified into book form (I have the ebook version; a paperback is being released on 10th October).
Accad was born and raised in Beirut, but has spent thirty years living in the United States, giving her a unique insight into the difficulties of cooking a cuisine from within a different culture. Her philosophy is to reach the highest level of flavour with the smallest number of basic ingredients – for her Lebanese food is about conviviality rather than complexity. Perhaps that’s why I like it 😉
Accad walks you through the basics of Lebanese cuisine, including her shortcuts for busy modern cooks. The Introduction explains some basic do’s and don’t’s, and Chapter 1 explores the crucial ingredients you would find in a Lebanese larder. Here you will learn about freekeh, mahlab, mastic and the elusive Sahlab (a starch extracted from Turkish orchids that I know as sahlep).
In Chapter 2 there are recipes and instructions for staples such as a basic bulgur pilaf, flatbread dough, the rice and vermicelli pilaf I’m so fond of and various sauces and condiments (including toom, the garlic paste). Many are quick and easy, or can be made in advance and stored in the freezer.
Chapter 3 introduces the hearty Lebanese breakfast, centered around flatbreads (which would traditionally be made in the local bakery). Chapter 4 moves on to lunch, and a variety of ‘sandwiches’ that are really wraps with traditional Lebanese fillings.
It’s party time in chapter 5, with a selection of mezze recipes for when you’re feeding a crowd. Although we tend to think of mezze (or Spanish tapas) as an entirely foreign way of eating, as I was reading through this book I remembered the British love of buffets. Our finger foods might not be quite as exotic, however….
Accad’s recipe for pumpkin fries will draw the attention of Americans, and gardeners will love her use of Swiss chard. She offers a dip recipe that makes use of the troublesome stalks, as well as stuffed chard leaves in place of vine leaves. If you tend towards lazy gardening then the dandelion leaf salad might be more up your street!
Chapter 6 looks at main courses, concentrating on the stews that are a home cooking mainstay, and the kibbeh (a mixture of minced meat and bulghur wheat) that is Lebanon’s national dish. Vegetarian options are available, known as ‘sad’ or ‘tricky’ kibbeh, as they were traditionally served during times of fasting… or hardship.
And chapter 7 rounds out the book with desserts, including an easy way to make baklava, and some other recipes that look (to my eye) more modern than traditional. There is a glossary of Lebanese words at the back.
I would have expected some recipes for drinks, but none are included. Arak gets a mention, as does ayran (a yoghurt drink), and there’s mention of the use of sahlab to thicken drinks. Perhaps there are none – I don’t know. But if it is an omission then it’s a minor one. There is plenty here for the adventurous cook to get their teeth into, everything is explained clearly enough for anyone less experienced, and there’s a good photo of each finished dish so that you know what you’re aiming for.
I am thoroughly looking forward to trying a number of these recipes over the coming months, although I will have to look elsewhere for clues on how to recreate my beloved broad bean salad. In the meantime, I need to find those Swiss chard seeds….
Taste of Beirut: 150+ Delicious Lebanese Recipes from Classics to Contemporary to Mezzes and More
by Joumana Accad
Kindle edition, £10.93
Paperback, 320 pages, £11.51, published 10 October 2014
Publisher: Health Communications
Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy of the ebook by the publisher, but these words are my own.