Monday, October 19, 2009

Classic Lebanese Cuisine

In my world there are really three types of cookbooks....ones that are simply filled with great recipes ...my go to section when I really don't know what I want to cook, reference books when I need to understand what I'm doing or trying some new technique, and last but definitely not least, those that tell wonderful stories about places I want to go to ...and of course the foods I would eat there.

Classic Lebanese Cuisine crosses back and forth into all three categories. And particularly on days like today...dreary, cold and damp, when I wish I was somewhere warm, it perfectly captures my mood.
That and the lovely bowl of Lentil Soup with Ruby Swiss Chard and Lemon to savor while leisurely reading it.

I love the Mediterranean...and here's a little trivia for you...21 countries/states have border on the Mediterranean Sea. I love the diversity, the healthy foods eaten as a matter of course, rather than as a "diet". So when I was asked to review this book, I jumped at the chance. Please remember that although I do receive evaluation copies, I only write about books that truly capture me. And this one does that in spades. But let me back up a bit.

Chef Kamal Al-Faqih is a Lebanese American who grew up in Washington DC, much of it spent in his mother's kitchen learning the true essence of all that is wonderful about Lebanese cooking...how healthy it is, how much care and attention is given to the layering of flavors that produces such mouth-watering and soul warming treats, and how great food is the heart of a great meal. He spent 20 years as a preeminent caterer in DC before moving out to California.

The book is filled with wonderful recipes that marry Lebanese traditional dishes with local North American ingredients. And even better, (here's the "reference book" part)...each recipe starts out with a listing of specialty ingredients and where you can find them; special equipment you might need...and don't panic, that includes things like food processors and candy/meat thermometers...plus tips on what can be prepared in advance, and when....all so we can be organized and create fantastic dishes in our own kitchens with little or no stress. After all, the cook should enjoy the gathering too.

Before you even get to the first recipe (in the Mezza or appetizer section...my personal favorite - I could easily eat an entire meal of these delicacies) there are helpful techniques for handling fillo dough, measuring flour, recycling oil, etc..

Each section has a lovely introduction ...a walk down memory lane to his homeland where he lived as a child. And each recipe has its own little story to have you savoring the dishes before you even get to the list of ingredients. From falafel with tahini sauce, to hummus (my favorite chickpea & tahini dip to the more complicated Lamb Turbans or lahm bi Ajeen (have no fear there's a photo tutorial to help you through the shaping) a filling of ground lamb, onions, tomato and pomegranate with toasted pine nuts are wrapped turban style in an easy to make dough and baked....You know that my daughter and I will definitely be spending a weekend soon making a batch of these.

And while it's true that I could...and will make an entire meal of the close to thirty recipes in this section alone!...there are delicious salads...using local vegetables in a tahini dressing, lots of lemon, parsley and garlic for the lovely potato salad or one of my own favorite Lebanese dishes...Tabbouli - parsley, bulgar wheat salad...fantastic! On to the main course...if you still have room, that is. This is my personal list of "must try soon" dishes...shiekh el Mihshi - beef & pinenut stuffed eggplant. This recipe even helps you choose the best eggplant. The Cardamom chicken with rice looks awesome as does a Chicken Curry made with apple cider vinegar, Granny Smith apples, a banana, allspice and cinnamon in addition to curry powder...that's definitely up soon. Roasted Lemon - Garlic Chicken and a stunning presentation of tilapia with Jalapeno Pine Nut Sauce . Wonderful sides that could easily become a meal like makhlouta - mixed bean sew or shroba keema - miniature meatball soup. Lots of vegetarian dishes that will really satisfy even the carnivores at the table.

And of course we can't forget the desserts from classic baklava and koul weshkor - cashew crescents, ghreibi - sugar cookies to katayef bi kushta - mini pancakes with cream.

I know this cookbook with its wonderful recipes will keep me smiling through the long dreary winter months.

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