When I wrote my Lebanese cookbook more than 20 years ago, sumac was still a relatively unknown ingredient, unlike now when almost everyone knows what it is, and more to the point can find it fairly easily. Anyhow, my mother told me all about how it is picked and dried, and then ground and I put all the information in the book together with how if you picked it from the wrong plant, you could die. Thank goodness for my mother being the fount of knowledge on all things culinary in Lebanon because I had never seen sumac either on the plant, or being dried and until recently, I only knew it in its ground form. But one day, a few years back, I was walking through souk el-Attarine in Aleppo and I found stalls selling sumac on the branch (‘ala al-‘anqoud as it is described in Arabic) and whole berries after they have been rubbed off the branch; and one guy was selling it ground with the seed and ground without — I honestly could not tell the difference. And two years ago, I found it being sold on the branch driving through the south of Lebanon . However, it is only two days ago, that I finally saw the whole process.
Middle Easterners are famous for their sweet tooth and I am no exception. I may no longer like chocolate but I still love other sweets, in particular baklava, a generic term describing a range of pastries made with filo or ‘hair’ pastry and filled with nuts and sometimes kaymak (thick cream). However, despite my curiosity for all things culinary from when I was a child, I had never seen commercial baklava being made until I visited the kitchens of Gulluoglu in Istanbul with my dear friend, Nevin Halici, and those of Imam Cagdas in Gaziantep with another dear friend, Filiz Hosukoglu, where an army of sweet-makers were making everything by hand, from rolling the filo to filling and shaping the different types of baklava to drenching it in sugar syrup. And from the very beginning to the very end, the process is mesmerising. Here are some pictures I snapped in Imam Cagdas’ baklava kitchens where they bake the baklava in a wood-fired oven.
Christmas is round the corner and I thought I would share with you this festive stuffed breast of lamb that my mother used to cook for xmas eve when it was only us around the table. I much preferred it to the turkey she roasted when my grandmother, aunt and uncles joined us. She used the same stuffing for both, a highly seasoned mixture of rice, meat and nuts and she occasionally varied on the breast by using a neck or a shoulder. Both neck and shoulder have more meat on them but the breast (a large, triangular piece of flat meat that lines the ribs) is delicious even if a little too fatty. Anyhow, there are two ways of stuffing it: one is by folding it in half over the stuffing and the other is by creating a pocket between the skin and the rib meat and filling it with the stuffing. In both cases you sew the edges to encase the stuffing.
Every now and then I have a perfect lunch and this is what happened today thanks to my friend Jerome and my brand new meat grinder. Jerome (who is head chef at Mosimann’s) gave me some fabulous lamb (from the top of the leg, which he calls single muscle) for me to make kibbeh nayeh. As for the meat grinder, I wouldn’t have bought one if I hadn’t lost Ramiz, my brilliant Lebanese butcher at Zeina who decided to return to the home country. This said, I am pleased to have it because I now have total control over my kibbeh which is not to say that I would not have left this control with Ramiz if he had not abandoned me and many other faithful clients! Anyhow, I thought I would share with you the way to the ultimate kibbeh nayeh.