I have always liked eating, from when I was a chubby little child, but I never carried food with me on my travels, that is not until I started writing about it. From that day on, I travelled like a peasant, stuffing spices and countless other ingredients into an extra bag that I carried empty with me to fill with my culinary purchases.
But on a recent trip to Paris, I decided to travel light and I took only one small bag, forgetting how irresistible Paris is, both for food and for clothes shopping; and of course, I stocked up at Yamamoto (my favourite designer) and at Desnoyer, the best butcher in Paris, who luckily was round the corner from where I was staying. Y obligingly provided me with a bag, although a simpler one than I would have expected, while Desnoyer suggested I get myself a sac isolant (with insulation) from Picard, the French Iceland, to protect my foies gras, boudin and faux filet until I got home. Two very different bags, not to mention the contents, that surprisingly looked quite harmonious next to each other.
The one thing that I would have loved to bring back, however, although I didn’t dare were sea urchins but I made sure I ate plenty while there, January being high season for urchins; and this I did thanks to my lovely friend Anne-Marie who you can see below in my old kitchen (the postcard picture of Anne-Marie was taken by June Newton).
The first night, we had them at her house and they were fabulous: very fleshy, and very fresh. Then we had them at the Bar à Huitres where Anne-Marie and I met the next day for a late lunch. The urchins there were just as good as those she had bought in the market although she had prepared them better, getting rid of all the liquid inside which they didn’t do at the Bar. I am now thinking of when I can go back to Paris before the season is over. And to think that I used to hate urchins when I lived in Beirut and could eat them on the beach straight out of the sea!
I thought I would post a picture of how the labneh looks once the yoghurt is strained. Also to say that there is less liquid lost with St Helen’s goat’s yoghurt: 1 kg yoghurt yielded 950 g labneh. And finally to say that I have adjusted the recipe for kishkeh in the previous post. I had suggested too much burghul. In fact, you only need 2 tablespoons fine burghul for 300 g labneh.
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.