Among the glories of January: leisurely flipping through a fall cookbook release that deserves dedicated attention, like The Lebanese Kitchen, without a single holiday to-do list. The latest in Phaidon's series of international home cooking bibles dedicated to regional cuisines clocks in at over 500 pages and just as many recipes.
On Amazon, author Salma Hage is touted as a Lebanese housewife with 50 years of home cooking experience. Read the book's brief Introduction, and you'll find she is was born in Mazarat Et Toufah, the eldest of 12 children. Yes, she learned to cook by necessity, but later cooking became her livelihood. In 1967, she and her husband emigrated to London, where she started out as a kitchen hand and eventually became head chef for a catering company, all the while learning English. "I'm a professional English cook," she says. "I went to college and worked for over 30 years as a cook, but at home... I cook Lebanese."
That she and her husband return to their home country several months a year is evident in the breadth of recipes, from mezze (snacks or appetizers) and salads to mains and desserts. Among them: freekah with fig, feta and caramelized onion salad, seabass with tahini and chili sauce topped with nuts, lamb shanks with spicy vegetable-stuffed grape leaves. For dessert, baklava, banana fritters or perhaps a plum-orange flower water tart? If you have always wanted to master Lebanese home cooking, this is the book for you.
There are enough falafel recipes alone to keep you busy for a week: carrot and cumin, cilantro-green chili, fava bean, parsley-fava bean and zucchini-cumin round out the list. A hummus fan? Hage includes versions made with beets, chile oil, favas, pine nuts, lamb and pine nuts (as a topping), as well as a pureed pumpkin-cilantro hummus and a red bell pepper version.
We could go on. But there are too many compelling vegetable dishes, like taro and dried cranberry beans, sweet potato and sumac phyllo rolls, and of course, moussaka.
Lamb here is rubbed and stuffed and stewed, as in that rack of lamb with garlic crust, lamb spaghetti with cashew nuts and "seven spices" (a traditional Lebanese blend of allspice, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, fenugreek and ginger), potato patties stuffed with lamb, and lamb stew with eggplant and spices.
Chicken is roasted with za'atar, served with lentils and seven spices, or marinated in garlic; fish gets the traditional preserved lemon treatment one night, an almond-pine nut filling or sumac crust another. And yes, there are enough desserts for a very good year (rose water ice cream, crepes with pistachio filling, plum and orange flower water tart, homemade Turkish delight).
One design note. The book's pages look like they've been cut with pinking shears. Beautiful, but in our copy, the zigzag edges cause several pages to stick tightly together so you must peel them back one by one. We like to think of it as a handy game of kitchen roulette. If you're lucky, and your pantry well-stocked, what recipe is suddenly revealed - eggplant-pomegranate salad (recipe below), chicken swarma, halloumi stuffed sesame loaf, pistachio-yogurt cake - will be what's for dinner.
Eggplant and Pomegranate Salad
From: The Lebanese Kitchen by Salma Hage
2 eggplants (aubergines)
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 Boston (little gem) lettuce
2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds
1. Preheat the oven to 375F. Price the eggplants all over with a skewer and put them on a baking sheet. Bake for about 1 hour until soft, then remove from the oven and let cool.
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2. When the eggplants are cool enough to handle, peel off and discard the skins and put the flesh into a bowl. Drizzle with olive oil, add the garlic, and mash until smooth. Serve with lettuce and pomegranate seeds.
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