It’s lucky I don’t invite the same friends all the time otherwise they might get bored of eating the same thing. I tend to fall in love with one dish and I cook it again and again until I get bored with it. These days, my favourite dishes for when I have guests over are kibbeh if I have time and fatteh if I don’t. Fatteh is a composite dish made of layers: toasted bread, meat (chicken, lamb or offal in particular lambs’ feet), chickpeas, yoghurt and pine nuts. The combination of textures is delightful. In one bite you have crunchy (the toasted bread and nuts), soft (the meat and chickpeas) and velvety (the yoghurt). You also get contrasting temperatures with the hot meat and chickpeas tempered by the bread and yoghurt which are at room temperature.
Fatteh can also be vegetarian, made with chickpeas and served for breakfast or made with aubergines that are fried, steamed or grilled and served for lunch or dinner. In Syria they have a fabulous version with baby aubergines that are stuffed with meat which they serve at Naranj in Damascus. Some cooks fry the bread. This has the advantage of keeping it crisp for longer but the disadvantage of it being too heavy. I prefer to toast mine.
Being a committed carnivore, I very rarely make the vegetarian version. I prefer it with meat and I normally use chicken rather than lamb. I buy a whole organic chicken which I poach with an onion and a cinnamon stick, adding enough salt to the broth so that I don’t need to add any more later.
I always prepare the chicken way ahead of time. I pour some of the broth in a clean pan, then I set about destroying the chicken to take the meat off the bone, discarding the skin. I cut the meat into smallish pieces and I drop these into the broth. As I do this, I nibble on the wings, parson’s nose and other bits — love poached chicken. I then add the cooked chickpeas — I now use those preserved in glass jars in just water and salt without any preservatives; much simpler than soaking and boiling dried chickpeas — and set the pan aside until I am ready to serve the fatteh. Then, about half an hour before I am ready to serve my fatteh, I reheat the chicken and chickpeas over a low heat making sure not to let the broth boil otherwise the texture of the meat will change. Then, I spread the toasted bread over the plate. I carefully spoon the chicken and chickpeas over the bread making sure not to cover it entirely. Then I spoon the yoghurt over the chicken, chickpeas and bread, again leaving a little of the bread uncovered for colour and I sprinkle the toasted pine nuts all over. My mother sautés the pine nuts in butter and she pours the butter over the yoghurt. I hate seeing the tracks of browned butter soil the lovely white yoghurt and I prefer to toast my pine nuts in the oven. The final dish looks much more appealing this way, and it is lighter!
In Arabic, fatta means ‘to break in pieces’ and fatteh consists of several layers of crumbled, broken or cut ingredients, hence the name. There are variations on how each layer is prepared. some prefer to sauté the toasted bread in butter, crushed garlic and herb of their choice before laying it under the other ingredients and leaving the yoghurt topping plain. I find this variation rather heavy and not so healthy. I also always use goat’s yoghurt which I much prefer to either cow’s or sheep’s yoghurt. Serves 4
1 chicken (about 1 1/2 kg)
1 cinnamon stick
1 onion, peeled
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
1 large pita bread, opened and toasted
1 glass jar chickpeas (475 g drained)
60 g pine nuts
1 large garlic clove, peeled and crushed
1 kg goat’s yoghurt
Put the chicken in a saucepan, add 1 1/2 litre water and place over a medium heat. As the water is about to boil, skim the surface clean, then add the cinnamon stick and salt. Cover the pan and boil gently for 45 minutes or until the chicken is done
While the chicken is cooking toast the bread in a hot oven or under the grill until golden and let it cool. Rinse the chick peas under cold water to get rid of the salty taste. Spread the pine nuts over a baking sheet and roast in a hot oven for 6-7 minutes, or until they have become golden brown.
Mix the crushed garlic (and mint if you chose to use it) into the yoghurt. Add salt to taste and set aside.
Break the toasted bread into bite-sized pieces and spread over the bottom of a serving dish. Lift the chicken and chickpeas out of the stock and spread over the bread. Cover with the seasoned yoghurt and garnish with the toasted pine nuts. Serve immediately.
©Anissa Helou — adapted from Lebanese Cuisine