As I walked through the Ferry Plaza building last time I was in SF, I spotted an ice cream shop selling an intriguing flavour: Lebanese mountain yoghurt. Sounded exciting, and incongruous. I had to have a taste. Sadly, it was just like any other yoghurt ice cream, and not a very good one at that. So, I asked the young girl serving me why Lebanese mountain yoghurt and not simply yoghurt. She hesitated, then she said it was imported from Lebanon and then, as if remembering an important detail, she said that it was actually labneh.
Now, as many of you know, I am fairly familiar with Lebanon and its food and labneh is nothing more than strained yoghurt. It is made in the mountains, and it is made in the city, at home and commercially. My grandmother made it. My mother made it, and there are still plenty of mountain folk who make it, often from sheep’s or goat’s milk while city folk often use powdered milk to make their yoghurt before straining it to make labneh. However, there is nothing stopping anyone, anywhere in the world, making labneh provided they have yoghurt. In fact, I make my own in London, using St Helen’s Farm goat’s yoghurt.
Those people making the ice cream in SF certainly don’t need to import their labneh from Lebanon, especially not to make such an indifferent ice cream. I walked away thinking that labneh was well on its way to becoming a global ingredient, the way hommus is now a global dip.
We only use it as a savoury ingredient and I remember how my mother used to make us labneh wraps (called bride or ‘aruss in Arabic), as soon as we came back from school using markouk bread (very thin and very large round loaves cooked over a saj, which is like an inverted wok). She mixed the labneh with olive oil seasoning it with a little salt, then spread it over the bread. She arranged a few pitted green olives and fresh mint leaves in a line down the middle before rolling the bread to make the sandwich. One of my favourites.
Here is how to make your own labneh. Line a colander with a double layer of cheese cloth (or get a cotton sack like the one in the picture above, which I snapped outside a tiny and incredibly primitive beehive house near Palmyra in Syria). Tip 1 kg of the best yoghurt you can buy into the lined colander. Tie the corners to make a pouch. Hang your pouch over a tap and let drain overnight. Et voila, the next day you will have 1/2 kg of lovely thick labneh which you can use to make ice cream or one of the two dips below. Or you can serve it plain, drizzled with excellent extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with fleur de sel and Aleppo pepper. Labneh is a staple of the Lebanese and Syrian breakfast table.
300 g labneh
3 tablespoons za’tar (a blend of dried thyme, sumac and sesame seeds unless it is the red Aleppo za’tar in which case it also has fennel, coriander and anise seeds, black sunflower seeds, toasted chickpeas and peanuts (although these are not recommended) and cumin)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for garnish
fine sea salt
toasted sesame seeds for garnish
Mix the labneh, za’tar and oil in a mixing bowl. Taste and add salt if necessary – some za’tar mixes can be very salty. Spoon into a serving bowl, making grooves here and there. Drizzle a little olive oil in the grooves. Sprinkle a little toasted sesame seeds all over. Serve with crudités, or pita bread, or pita chips.
@Anissa Helou from Modern Mezze
This is a classic Syrian dip which you can make with fresh or dried mint. Use the same amount of labneh as in the recipe above but instead of za’tar, use 2 tablespoons fine burghul and 2-3 tablespoons dried mint or a handful of finely chopped fresh mint leaves. Add salt to taste. Mix well. Then transfer to a serving dish, garnish and serve as with the labneh with za’tar.
Long ago, when I was doing the Sotheby’s works of arts course, I wanted to be a photographer, really more than an art expert. So, I got myself a beautiful Nikon, a couple of lenses, a tripod, a remote control shutter clicker or whatever that thing is called, a beautiful canvas bag to carry my gear and I started taking photographs. Lots of them.
My role model was Edward Weston. I loved his strange close-ups of vegetables that didn’t look like vegetables, although I was not interested in photographing food in those days. I loved eating but not cooking. I didn’t want to be domesticated and I wouldn’t cook for my poor lover of the time who had to eat cheese and toast most evenings — he didn’t seem to mind.
In any case, we had this lovely property in the south of France, near a river where there were beautiful rock formations; and every day, I would go out with my camera to take close-ups of rocks, earth, tree trunks, whatever looked beautiful and likely to end up looking not like it was in close-up. But I quickly realised that I was no Edward Weston and even when I took photographs that were good, I would find a photographer had done them before. So, I put away my camera, using it only for my course work and concentrated on learning about art.
Recently, I got a new camera. A friend set it for me with a special close-up setting and I started taking close-ups again, this time of food. One day, as I walked down the souk in Aleppo, I saw this lone testicle sitting on a butcher’s block. The butcher was very amused with my photographing it again and again. He didn’t know that I was once quoted as saying: “I love brains and testicles” (in the context of talking about offal of course) with some journalist picking up the quote, saying I was a girl after his heart. Anyway, I was skyping with a friend tonight, and as we were discussing sex and middle aged lesbians, she reminded me of the quote, and I remembered my picture of the lone testicle.
So, I thought I would do a blog and post my photograph and one of Weston’s of a pepper. I like my picture, especially that little fleck of parsley and the slit on the skin but sadly, I am still not likely to produce any shots like Weston’s! Nor will I ever. Still, I am having fun with my new camera and its new close-up setting.
©Edward Weston — Pepper, 1930
How to cook testicles:
The testicle in my picture belongs to a lamb and it hasn’t been peeled yet. Normally the butcher would do that and the nick you see at the top is where he must have started making the incision before he got distracted. It would have run along the length of the testicle for him to peel off the skin easily to reveal creamy flesh with no trace of blood. He will then cut it into slices along the length or into wedges. I prefer slices because the thickness is more or less the same all over and I can control the cooking. You don’t need to do much to testicles. Some people recommend blanching them like sweetbreads or brains before frying them, but no one does that in Lebanon. I just dredge the pieces in seasoned flour, shake the excess off and then fry them in butter for one minute on each side. Be careful not to overcook them or they will go rubbery. I always squeeze a little lemon at the very end. Et voilà, just as good as brains or sweetbreads. Perhaps even better.
I discovered this extraordinary drink last year. I was walking through the bazaars of Gaziantep (or Antep as the Turks like to call it or ‘Entab as the Syrians do, a lovely town in south eastern Turkey which is a mini Aleppo, complete with a smaller Citadel) when I stopped in front of a sack full of pretty small dried berries, some blueish and some red which I had never seen before. I asked the vendor what they were but naturally, he only spoke Turkish and sadly, I don’t. Rather annoying but I was meeting my friend Filiz Hosuokoglu, the reference in Gaziantep for all things culinary, and others — her father and brothers have a lovely gold jewellery shop where I got my lovely grape earrings — for lunch and I bought a bag to show her and ask about them.
She explained that they were wild pistachios used to make a caffeine-free coffee that looks like Turkish coffee, but isn’t – it has a resinous quality to it and a mouth feel that is definitely an acquired taste. After lunch, Filiz took me to the most divine old-fashioned cafe, Tahmis, to taste menengiç. Sadly, the café is being restored now and the old man in the picture below will no longer run the café when it reopens.
I was intrigued and I thought I would introduce my friends and students to it. What I omitted to do was ask Filiz how to use the berries I had bought. It wasn’t until I returned to London that I realised I couldn’t use them as they are. They needed to be processed and I couldn’t do it. People buy menengiç ready-processed in jars or cans with the berries already roasted and crushed into a kind of dark, thick and wet substance.
So, no menengiç coffee until I had a jar of the processed berries. Now, I am sure I could have bought one at any of the Turkish shops in Green Lanes, north from where I live, but it wasn’t the same thing as bringing one back from Gaziantep. Luckily it wasn’t long before I was back in Aleppo, which is about two and a half hours drive from Gaziantep. Once there, I hired a car with the most sullen driver ever and took along my lovely friend Anna (who is about to take a sip of menengiç in the last photograph). We stayed in the same boutique hotel where I normally stay, Anadolu Evleri, two lovely old houses in the old part of town, round the corner from the bazaars. Everyone there is charming, Tim who is the owner, his family and the staff; and they also are extremely helpful. As soon as I explained to Tim that I needed to find out more about menengiç, he brought out the jar you see in the picture below, and asked one of his lovely young men to make us some. Anna asked for hers to be made with milk while I had mine plain. To tell you the truth, neither one of us liked it much but it is definitely worth trying, at least once. Happy new year.
How to make Turkish coffee or menengiç:
The method is the same for both. Ideally you need a rakweh which is the Arabic name of the little pot with the long handle and spout in the picture above but you can easily make your coffee in a small saucepan. Measure out the number of coffee cups you would like to make by pouring water in a demi tasse (one cupful per person) and pour the water in the rakweh or saucepan. Add a heaping teaspoon of either very finely ground coffee (there are many good Lebanese brands with Najjar being one of the best known) or menengiç per each cup of water, and depending on how sweet you like your coffee, omit the sugar altogether (I always have it sadah, meaning without sugar; wassat means medium and helou, like my name, means sweet) or add up to a teaspoon per cup.
Mix and place over a medium heat. Bring to the boil but be vigilant. The coffee will boil over, so, watch it closely as it starts rising and take off the heat just as it is about to boil over. Let the coffee settle, then boil again. If you like foam on your coffee, two or three boils will be enough. If not, boil several times until there is no more foam. The method is the same for menengiç except that you will not really have any foam. Enjoy.
Here I am, holed up in my lofty eyrie, trying to concentrate on writing my book and staying warm — it’s freezing out there; we even had a mini snow storm last night which started just as I was leaving a lovely Xmas party in all my Eskandar finery. Not quite the weather to dress up so smartly.
In any case, as I was looking through my stash of Syrian photographs, deciding on which to choose, when I came across the video above. Watching it brought back memories of warm sunshine and the laughter we shared as we tried to decide which of the gadgets the guy was demonstrating worked. I decided on the courgette/zucchini corer although I haven’t tried it yet. I am not holding out much hope that I will be able to use it as adeptly as the vendor. Still, I wish I had bought a dozen to give away for Xmas .
Sadly, I didn’t but I would still like to wish you all a Happy Xmas, and please don’t forget to bid on the wonderful items that have been donated for Menu for Hope 6. See my contribution in the post below. Also, please go to the various links to bid on more prizes. Stellar offerings from all over.