Now, I am not going to say very much about Anissa Helou just now because there will be an interview with her in a few months’ time, but suffice it to say she is quite fascinating.
This is one of those rare books that will entice not only enthusiastic cooks (although you don’t have to be one to succeed with these recipes) but also anyone who is the slightest bit interested in the cultures of Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and Morocco.
It’s said that we are what we eat, but I would say equally that the way we eat reflects something of our nature. Mezze are almost the equivalent of tapas: small dishes of meat, fish, vegetables, salads to be shared. The charm is that it’s a meal to linger over, each person taking a little of this, a taste of that, creating an unhurried break from the daily routine.
Anissa Helou writes with such warmth about her childhood in Lebanon. She remembers the excitement she felt when seeing her father ordering huge numbers of mezze dishes for family and friends to eat together. Modern Mezze opens a little window on the most accessible aspect of Middle Eastern food and allows us to enjoy for ourselves what was once available only to restaurant-goers or those with a ticket to Beirut.
The book is peppered (I know Anissa will say I should have used another spice!) with the most wonderful photos of not only finished dishes but also stages of preparation, and that’s always a comfort to a debutant cook. It contains everything you need to know to be able to prepare impressive mezze. The recipes are easy to follow, colourful and healthy.
There are lots of dishes that you will be familiar with, like Tzatziki and Tabbûlé, but how about Labné? How impressed will your friends be when you tell them that you produced this soft cheese yourself? You don’t need to tell them how very easy it is to make! Keep quiet and look like an expert, that’s what I’d do. Do you see why I like this book?
I love Fattûsh, a herb and toasted pita salad, and Anissa has, in my opinion, the best recipe. The ingredients are simple: pita bread, salad vegetables, herbs, oil and sumac, a lemony-flavoured, ground berry. It might not sound exceptional but it’s truly delicious with a lovely combination of textures. I make this often and it’s always a winner for a summer lunch.
The book is a dream to use with nothing being left to chance. There is an item about drinks to serve with mezze, suggestions for mezze as a starter or a meal, descriptions of ingredients and stockists. Anissa has recipes for dips, salads, pastries, pulses, veggies, fish and meats. Anyone, be they vegetarian or certified carnivore, will find plenty to enjoy in Modern Mezze…… So enjoy!
I guess I should be kind and offer you a recipe to try. There are so many delicious ones… but how about baba ghannûge [pronounced gannoosh]? It’s a classic.
Grilled Aubergine Dip – Baba Ghannûge
6 large aubergines, about 250g each
4 tbsp tahini
juice of one lemon, or to taste.
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed.
For the garnish:
extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp chopped mint or fresh pomegranate seeds (preferably the sour type)
There is some confusion over the Arabic name of this dip. In Syria it is mûtabbal, while baba ghannûge is used to describe a grilled aubergine salad. In any case it is exceptionally good, provided the aubergines are char-grilled or, better still, barbecued over an open fire so they take on a smoky flavour. It is also important to mash the aubergines by hand – if you use a food processor the dip won’t have such a good texture.
Preheat the grill to high. Prick the aubergines in several places with a small knife (to stop them bursting under the grill) and place on a sturdy baking sheet or grill rack. Grill until the aubergines are very soft to the touch and the skins are slightly charred, turning to expose all sides evenly to the heat (or cook on a barbecue). This may take up to 45 minutes, depending on the heat.
Transfer the aubergines to a board, halve each one lengthways and scoop out the flesh with a spoon. Put the flesh into a colander and leave for at least half an hour to drain off the excess liquid.
Tip the aubergine flesh into a wide bowl and mash, using a potato masher or the back of a fork. Don’t crush it too much – you want the dip to have texture. Add the tahini and salt to taste and mix well, then stir in the lemon juice and crushed garlic. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
Transfer the dip to a shallow serving bowl and with the back of a spoon spread it the same way as you would hommus so that you have a shallow groove in the dip. Drizzle a little olive oil in the groove and sprinkle the mint or pomegranate seeds decoratively in the centre and at regular intervals along the raised edge. Serve with pita bread.
Modern Mezze by Anissa Helou
Quadrille Publishing Ltd
ISBN 978 84400 632 8
Cookbook review by Chrissie Walker © 2018