I have always loved Middle Eastern cookery and I find the spice mixes and flavour combinations incredibly intoxicating. When Claudia Roden first published “The Book of Middle Eastern Food” in 1972, the cuisines of Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Egypt and their neighbours were a mystery to most of us.
Her ground breaking book celebrated Arabic cookery in all its opulence and variety: refined tajines (one-pot dishes), substantial meze (appetizers), spicy meat dishes and off course, all those wonderful sweet pastries. As she says herself, “every recipe tells a story” and I still enjoy flicking through a very old, beaten up copy of her book from time to time, looking and usually finding inspiration.
Mixed in with the recipes are Roden’s personal experiences as a cook and recipe archivist, and Middle Eastern tales that illustrate the history of a particular recipe or food group. “It was once believed olive oil could cure any illness except the one by which a person was fated to die,” Roden writes. “People still believe in its beneficial qualities and sometimes drink it neat when they feel anemic of tired.” She also includes a detailed introduction to the terrain, history, politics, and society of the Middle East so her readers can more fully understand why the cuisine has evolved the way it has. “Cooking in the Middle East is deeply traditional and nonintellectual,” she says, “an inherited art.” It’s our good fortune to inherit such a rich tradition.
Today, their fresh flavours are better known and enormously popular, such food can be found not only in fashionable restaurants but also on supermarket shelves all across the country.
I simply love cooking from Claudia’s book and I don’t think there’s a recipe I don’t want to cook. I have learnt that Middle Eastern food is not about experimentation, it is about technique and cooking a particular dish in the time honored way, in the best way you can. It’s also about simplicity and choosing good ingredients, as many of the dishes are pleasingly unfussy.
Here are a few recipes that have been inspired by Claudia’s fabulous book and I hope, if you haven’t got a copy hidden away somewhere, they will inspire you to go out and buy one soon. It’s a book to treasure, full of exotic flavours and aromas.
LAMB KOFTE KEBABS WITH FRESH HERB & CUCUMBER YOGHURT
Ingredients Serves 4
500kg good quality lamb meat (from the leg or shoulder)
1 clove garlic,
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
A generous pinch of hot paprika
6 fresh mint leaves
Salt to taste
To make the kofte, Place the lamb with the garlic, mint leaves and spices in the food processor. Blend to form a fine mince.
Place in a bowl, cover and refrigerate for 20 minutes to allow the flavours to develop. With wet hands, divide the seasoned mince into 8 equal portions and mould each one around a wooden skewer into a long sausage shape.
When ready to cook, heat a griddle or grill to it’s highest setting. Place the köftes on the griddle or grill and cook for 2–3 minutes on each side, or until golden brown and cooked through. Serve with fresh herb & cucumber yoghurt.
FRESH HERB & CUCUMBER YOGHURT
1 small cucumber, peeled, de-seeded and cut into chunks.
125g cream cheese
120ml natural yoghurt
4tbsp finely chopped herbs such as basil, coriander,
1tbsp white wine vinegar
Place all the ingredients in a food processor and blend for 10 seconds.
Place in a bowl and chill until required.
SWEET POTATO FALAFELS WITH COLESLAW
2 sweet potatoes (about 800g)
120g plain flour
1tsp ground cumin
1tsp ground coriander
2 crushed garlic cloves
1tbsp olive oil
juice of half a lemon
A handful of fresh coriander leaves, chopped
Preheat the oven to 200C.
Roast the sweet potatoes whole until just cooked (about 45 minutes – 1 hour). Turn off the oven, leave the potatoes to cool, then peel.
Place the sweet potato flesh in a bowl with the kneading hook; gently add the cumin, garlic, ground and fresh coriander, lemon juice and flour. Season well. Leave the mixture in the fridge to firm up for an hour or so.
Using a couple of soup spoons dipped in cold water, make the mixture into small patties and put them on an oiled baking tray. Bake in the oven for approximately 8 minutes on each side golden-brown. Serve with coleslaw & pitta bread
4 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp caster sugar
1 medium onion
1 large carrot , peeled
150g red cabbage
150g white cabbage
Using the shredding tool, shred the onions, carrots and white & red cabbages.
Place in a large bowl and add the red wine vinegar and caster sugar. Season with salt & pepper and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least 1 hour.
TURKISH COFFEE AND CARDAMOM CREAMS
Ingredients: serves 8
60g roasted coffee beans
4 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
½ cinnamon stick
50g dark chocolate
8 egg yolks
Place the cream, coffee beans, cardamom and cinnamon in a saucepan and bring slowly to the boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave to cool and infuse.
Pass through a fine sieve into a clean saucepan and return to the heat. Add the chocolate and stir until it has melted.
Whisk the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl and add the warm chocolate cream. Pour the mixture back into a saucepan and heat gently, stirring continuously, until it thickens to a custard consistency.
Remove from the heat and cool in a sink of iced water, stirring continuously.
Pour the coffee creams into coffee cups or glasses and chill well before serving.