Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Lebanese Part 2

2. Baba Ghanouj Katya Faraj
3. Hoummus Greg Malouf
4. Tabbouleh Samira Saab
5. Kafta Fouad Sayed
6. Kousa Mahshi (Stuffed Zucchini) Judy Saba

In some ways, I feel like this was the real start to the Food Safari Challenge. Lebanese Part 1 was a bit of a trial - just one recipe that looked pretty, but that I didn't even get to taste. This was the first banquet with invited guests and excessive planning. I warmed myself up by watching the Lebanese episode from series one of Food Safari. Meave, her usual resplendent self, was an inspiration, 'mmm-ing' her way orgasmically through every sampled recipe.

I had been yammering on about venturing forth into as yet unexplored (by me) areas of Melbourne to source tools and ingredients. Of course, I left it too late, and was forced to rely upon the fresh food market and General Trader at my nearest shopping centre.

My first challenge was to find a manakra, a small tool that looks a little bit like a cross between an apple-corer and the thing you use to get crab meat out of claws (what's that called?). I needed it to hollow out the zucchinis for the Kousa Mahshi. As you would imagine, despite visiting numerous foodie shops, I was unable to find a manakra. I discussed it with a foodie friend at work. She suggested using a small melon baller, but when I explained that the zucchinis needed to stay whole, she agreed that this probably wouldn't work. I considered the pointy, end bit of my Zyliss peeler. It is the same shape as the manakra, but I figured was probably not going to get me right down to the bottom of the zucchini. In the end, I used a metal 1/4 teaspoon measure that has quite a long arm. It did the job well enough, but the lack of handle made it all a bit slow and eventually painful, and I was quite pleased that I only had 7 zucchinis to stuff, rather than the prescribed 10. The zucchini was, surprisingly, the stand out dish. I'll return to that later... first the barbeque fire.

Yes - Fire. Complete with flames and Fear Of God.

As I needed to make a couple of dips, I decided to do the Baba Ghanouj the day before. I don't have a gas stove in my kitchen, so wanted to use the wok burner on my barbecue to blacken the eggplants so that they would have that lovely, smokey flavour. What I didn't know was that a spider had decided that the pipe connected to the burner would make a lovely, snug home in which to have lots of spidery babies. When I started the gas up and tried to light the burner, the whole thing caught fire. Given that the wok burner is positioned directly above the gas bottle itself, I panicked, and almost lost my voice screaming for my husband's assistance. What can I say? I live in the hills. Flames scare me.

The upside was that it meant I needed a new barbecue. Shopping for appliances being one of the great joys in life, we headed off to Barbeques Galore the following day, and procured a shinier, bigger and altogether sexier new barbeque. Fortuitously, the store was relocating, and we managed to score some outstanding floor stock at around half the retail price. We were thrilled; there is nothing more satisfying than an unsolicited Barry Bargain, particularly of such magnitude.

This was all too late for the eggplant, which I had prepared directly after the Great Fire (straight back on the horse) turning to the trusty camp stove to baba my ghanouj (or is it ghanouj my baba?). It was worth the threat of death. The flavour was so fresh that I was afraid it wouldn't taste as good the next day, but I needn't have worried. The smokiness had mellowed slightly - probably a good thing, as it had been almost overwhelming the day before. The hoummus was good but a bit dry, so I added extra garlic and lemon juice. This may have been because I didn't use the '9mm chickpeas' recommended by Greg Malouf. I toyed with the idea of tracking them down, but then the rational (smaller) part of my brain took over, and convinced my perfectionist self that measuring chickpeas would, quite frankly, be taking the whole gastro-adventure thing a step too far.

As I said, the zucchinis surprised me. I was a little concerned about the fact that they were to be cooked in simmering water with tomato paste. Even Maeve's 'mmms' had left me unconvinced. To digress for a moment, I have a theory that you can tell if Maeve is genuinely in awe of dish, or if she is just being polite by the pitch of her 'mmm' and the comment she follows it up with. An 'Oh my God...' means that something is really awesome, whereas a 'wow, that's really good,' not so much. This was definitely an 'Oh my God'. People who do not normally go for cooked vegetables were asking for take-aways and/ or the recipe. A good sign. I wouldn't recommend following the recipe's suggestion to make any leftover stuffing into meatballs and add them to the sauce to simmer, though. They basically fell apart as soon as I tried to remove them from the pot, and ended up resembling bolognese mixed with a little bit of rice.

The tabbouleh was a revelation. I have eaten great Lebanese before, at Abla's, in unpretentious suburban restaurants such as Dunyazad, and have had as many middle of the night souvlakis as anyone else who has lived and studied in Melbourne. Never before has tabbouleh floated my proverbial boat in such a manner. It may have been the freshly picked herbs and garden tomatoes, or perhaps it was that the cracked wheat was soaked in lemon juice rather than water and retained a bit of crunch. Whatever it was, it was incredibly zingy and moreish, and worked perfectly with the kofta, bread and dips. These we ate, as instructed, by folding the large pita, which had been spread with some dip and the tabbouleh, around the kofta like a napkin and sliding it off the metal skewer. You then tear off small pieces of the bread, pick up a little meat and salad and get to work. Thus allowing you to dispense of vast quantities of food without really noticing that you've eaten enough to feed the cast of the Biggest Loser. Be warned, pants, you will be unbuttoned.

While it's great fun to cook my way through the Food Safari Cookbook banquet-style, it provides somewhat of a dilemma. Not all cuisines include recipes for desserts, multiple side dishes, or a great enough variety of meat. Of course, I need to try to remember that there is always too much food, but nevertheless, this week I felt I needed more. One of my guests, Ann-marie, came to the rescue with some delicious baklava from Vanilla Cakes and Lounge in Oakleigh (interestingly, they have their own appreciation society on Facebook), and Guil picked up the bread from her local Lebanese bakery. Having just linked all of the recipe titles to the Food Safari website, I discover that it is not just the recipes featured in the book, or even on the episodes, that appear on the site. This makes me a little nervous, as I am sure that I will now be compelled to 'pad out' my banquets with additional dishes from the site. This week I added a Fattoush sans the bread (had run out of energy for preparing more ingredients by that stage), because I felt we needed a little more green. Totally unnecessary as it turned out, but excellent.

Although Lebanese is now off the list so far as the challenge goes, I am already craving another round of that amazing baba ghanouj. Maybe this is what's going to happen every time. Instead of each banquet making me curse strange tools and impossible to find ingredients, it will leave me feeling slightly guilty, like I'm just skimming the surface of each culture (which clearly, I am).

I get the feeling that the safari may not end with the book.

Next challenge: Spanish

Friday, 8 January 2010

Lebanese Part 1

1. Tarator-Style Salmon Greg Malouf

Looks amazing, smells amazing, tastes.... not sure, but we'll get to that later. I decided to cook this one first for two reasons. One - because Maeve said it was the best thing she had ever eaten and two, because I already had the fish. Well - almost. I had a trout. Near enough.

Every year, my uncle catches an prepares a trout for Christmas Day. It may be just an excuse to go fishing during the hectic lead up to Christmas, but it is an excuse we are all prepared to let slide, given the end result. Usually, he steams or smokes it, stuffing it with lemons, dill and parsley.

In late December, when my father and I were surrounded by magazines and cookbooks, bickering about what to prepare, this was the dish we agreed upon first. I also quite liked the fact that it looked a bit fiddly, mainly because it annoys my mother, who likes to hover around during the afore-mentioned recipe search, screeching, "just do something easy!" This is most likely motivated by the fact that she is often one of those left to deal with the carnage that is the kitchen after a couple of days of food preparation. Let's just say that our mise en place is not so much "en place" as "all over the place." Anyway, the Tarator-style Salmon (trout) was an easy decision; the central focus of what became a Middle Eastern themed Christmas banquet.

We didn't have enough room to prepare the meat and the fish at home, so the plan was that my Uncle would ring for the cooking instructions on Christmas morning. This is where we began to seriously deviate from the recipe. Greg/ Maeve instruct us to bake a 4 kg salmon for 20 minutes on either side in a 150 degree oven. The fish should be seasoned with salt and pepper, drizzled with olive oil and wrapped in baking paper before being placed in the oven. This, I related to my father, who, in turn passed the instructions on to my Uncle. The following conversation ensued.

Uncle: What, with noting in it? Not even wine?
Father: "He wants to know if he can put wine in it.
Me: No. No wine. We need to follow the recipe. Greg knows best.
Father: She says nothing else on it.
Uncle: It won't be cooked evenly. I should cut it half.
Father: He says he should cut it in half so that it will cook.
Me: No! Turn it over half way through, like to recipe says. Anyway, we have a 2.5 kg trout, not a 4kg salmon. I'm sure it will be cooked. You might even need to reduce the cooking time.
Father: She says don't cut it.
Uncle: Well it's too big to fit in the oven, so I'll need to cut off the head.
Father: He wants to cut off the head.
Me: No! #$%@! It needs to be a whole fish!
Father: Look - you talk to him yourself!

Uncle agreed to follow my instructions (his exact words were: your wish is my command) but went ahead and threw in some wine, garlic and chilli anyway. The fish did remain whole, though.

A couple of hours later, well into the prep, my Uncle's partner arrived, bearing fish. "Ian's not coming," she proclaimed. My first thought was that I'd pissed him off with my pedantic adherence to the recipe, but according to Jenny, he had 'food poisoning'.

Allow my to digress for a moment in order to briefly discuss my thoughts on food poisoning. From my understanding, food poisoning occurs when some bug or another gets into your food. Everyone who eats the food, gets sick at a around about the same time, give or take a few hours. Reactions to bacteria in food can take between 6 and 72 hours to take effect. Apparently, nine times out of ten, when someone thinks they have food poisoning, what they actually have is viral or bacterial gastro. They blame their last meal because chucking it up is so unpleasant. Gastro scares me. There is nothing worse than feeling like death, as the same time everyone else in your household feels like death. Not only that, you can't eat anything, which is just evil. The only positive side-effect is the weight loss. The last time we all had gastro was last Easter, on holidays with two other families. Six adults and four children. We all went down like flies, one after the other.

When quizzed, Jenny confessed that others in the household had been sick in the previous week. "Did Ian do the fish?" I asked, trying to disguise my alarm.

"Yes, but I made him wash his hands!"

I decided at that moment that I was quite happy to prepare the fish, but that I would not be eating it. So, I made the dressing, the salad, roasted the walnuts and even scattered a few pomegranate seeds over the top. It looked gorgeous. Quite a lot like the picture, except the tahini dressing slid off a bit, so it probably needed a bit more yoghurt. The fish was also a little bent (as in 'not straight'), which gave it the appearance of trying to leap off the platter, as it was too big to fit in the oven.

Apparently it was delicious. And nobody got sick.