Review: Myrna Robins
Saffron in the Souks, by John Gregory-Smith (Kyle Books)
Such an English name penning a cookbook on Lebanese cuisine was my initial reaction; then I found out that Gregory-Smith is a best-selling food and travel writer who specialises in Middle Eastern fare.
He has published four books of recipes highlighting both this and North African cuisine, among them the sweetly named Orange Blossom & Honey.
Vibrant is the thought that comes to mind when contemplating the delectable, colourful food of Lebanon, with its generous use of herbs and spices. Although I have never visited this small country, I have relished several of its classics, thanks to Lebanese chefs and restaurants in the Western Cape.
As the author says, mention Lebanon and images of war are likely to come to mind – and today volatile politics and perilous finances pile additional problems onto a population that is a melting pot of cultures. Muslims, Druze, Christians, Armenians, Syrians and Palestinians have all helped shape the cuisine that started with the Phoenicians in the third millennium BC followed by the Romans in 64BC.
Smith starts with meze, and his own version of a Lebanese beetroot appetiser looks moreish, affordable and health-giving – roasted beets, with spring onion, radishes, walnuts and lentils, scented with tarragon and mint, and dressed with lemon zest and juice, olive oil and seasoning. A scattering of feta completes the dish. Chickpeas star in others, along with aubergine and labna. There are marinated chicken wings, tuna, calamari, stuffed vine leaves and pestos made from both coriander and pistachio.
Vegetables star in the second chapter, with a varied collection of mostly vegetarian dishes, spiced, herbed and dressed with ingredients like pomegranate molasses, coriander, lemon juice, yoghurt and olive oil. Orzo, lentils, feta and cherry tomatoes fill baked red peppers. Carrots become classy, roasted and finished with lemon, tahini and fresh coriander. Falafel of herbed chickpeas fills pita breads, along with lettuce, parsley, pickles, sumac and chilli sauce.
Roasted haloumi is teamed with citrus segments, garnished with pistachios and oregano. Roasted courgette rounds are paired with tomatoes, spring onions, and purslane, and its classic lemon and olive oil dressing is finished with pomegranate molasses and tahini.
Kebabs are meaty favourites, whether beef or lamb: a recipe for kofta from neighbouring Syria seasons the lamb with allspice and cinnamon, and finishes the little meatballs with a sour cherry sauce and a garnish of cashews. Contemplate several versions of Lebanon’s national dish, kibbeh, based on finely minced lamb and bulgur wheat. Mostly delicious but time-consuming to prepare.
Lebanese 7 spice will liven up your next roast chicken – this pungent blend of black peppercorns, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, coriander and allspice makes the marinade base along with paprika and cardamom. The bird is finished with lemon juice and za’atar after roasting.
Seafood also gets the spice and herb combo: prawns sparked with chilli and mint, sea bass coated with coriander, cumin, pepper, garlic, then sauced with tahini, lemon juice and olive oil.
Cauliflower fans will approve the “rock star roast” that is sauced with tahini, lemon juice, and onion. Another meatless temptation – one with variations all over the eastern Med – is eggs poached in garlicky, minted fullcream yoghurt. There’s also a vegetable stew – well spiced, based on new potatoes, aubergine, and courgettes, flavoured with onion, tomato, garlic that is on my “try soon” list.
The chapter on rice and grains contains classics like makloubeh – an upside-down cake, veggies lining the base, meat and rice cooked on top, then the whole inverted onto a serving dish. The ancient grain that is freekeh makes the smoky base for a salad with figs, nuts, mint, feta and pomegranate molasses.
Breads and pastries present an intriguing selection – think lamb-filled pita, or the national breakfast bread man’ouche, savour crisp pastries encasing more lamb.
We finish, naturally, with desserts that start with French toast sauced with carob molasses and tahini. There’s a dark chocolate tart with halva, a peanut honeycomb, pistachio and clotted cream icecream or one can enjoy coffee with a date and cinnamon square of layered semolina pastry.
The well-styled food photographs not only complement the recipes, but add exotic ambience, and the embossed daisy design of the hardback’s front and back covers is very appealing. The comprehensive index is professionally compiled.