Sunday, May 01, 2011

Lebanon, April 29th 2011

As I was preparing my Lebanese dinner on Friday night and then Saturday morning, I became more and more confused as to why a country with such wonderful cuisine would ever want to get into a war... do you know that scene from "Legally Blonde" where Elle is explaining to the rest of the lawyer team why Brooke could not possibly be guilty? "Happy people don't kill their husbands... they just don't"? I think I was applying the same logic... good food makes you happy and happy people don't make war... But this reasoning could possibly be applied to most of the countries that I've cooked from (including several from the Middle East) so there must be some flaws to this logic.

As it happens my current boss is from Lebanon so for once I could have some advice on what to cook. His first advice was for me to go to a good Lebanese restaurant in Atlanta (mezza bistro) and get them to cater my dinner but this would just take away most of the fun for me so instead I went to look at their online menu for ideas. I settled for mezze or a selection of small dishes as I wanted to capture many of the various flavors of this wonderful cuisine. I ran the menu by Wadih (the above mentioned boss) and he gave his stamp of approval.

It was a nice coincidence that the royal wedding between Kate & William happened this Friday and I had planned to get up at 5.30am to watch it live... a plan that proved to be short-lived as I decided that sleeping in would have made my day much more pleasurable. My colleague Karen brought in a nice feathery hat for me to wear at work and it really looked like a lot of fun (picture me sitting in front of the computer at work looking at a profit and loss account and talking to myself in Queen's English "One must accrue for expenses incurred but not paid").  However the hat was a little too big for my head and I soon got tired of blowing feathers off my nose. Anyhow, the reason I started on the wedding was because I was able to watch the entire replay on PBS while slicing eggplants and preparing cookies for the goody bags. I had promised Eric that I would have gone to the Inman Park festival with him on Saturday (plus we had told Kako we would stop for drinks... which turned out we were actually supposed to be going for dinner... sorry Kako... it really did look like a delicious meal you were preparing) so I needed to prep as much as possible on Friday night. I not only watched the entire wedding program (Kate looked stunning, didn't she) but I also watched the post show which was a story about the royal weddings in history. With enough wine, it actually was interesting.

I had initially planned to have only my friend Karen and her husband Mike over for dinner as a thank you for fixing my Vespa (the weather is nice now so I might leave the car at home sometimes...) but then Katie asked if we were going to the festival and when I told her I was making dinner for friends she immediately guessed it was an alpha dinner so I asked her if she wanted to come. Also, I was supposed to meet Carmen and Carla for brunch today and Carmen had asked me if we could go to the Middle Eastern place around here so it just made sense that I invited them to my Lebanese dinner. Therefore, it was 8 of us: Karen and Mike, Katie and Richard, Carmen and Carla and Eric and I. And it was a good thing as the "serve 4" was probably referring to football teams rather than portions!

Once everyone arrived we moved to the table and after drinks were fixed for all, I explained my dinner rules to the newbies (Karen, Mike, Carmen and Carla) and then moved to the kitchen to get the mezze.  Here we go:

  1. Hummus: store bought so doesn't get reviewed.  There is certainly bad hummus out there but let's face it, it's kind of a difficult dish to screw up... it's mashed chickpeas, garlic, lemon and olive oil... yummy and easy!  It's interesting that this would be a healthy dish... typically healthy dishes don't taste great.  But of course it's the olive oil!
  2. Labneh Bi Toom:  this is so easy to prepare and it is absolutely divine. It is made of yogurt (I used zero fat Greek Yogurt), lots of garlic, mint oregano and cucumber.  Everyone loved this... there was not one scrap left at the end of the night and it scored really high (some of the comments were "Wow" and "wonderful")
  3. Falafel: you are probably accustomed with falafel made out of chickpeas but in Lebanon they are actually made out of a combination of dry fava beans and chick peas and personally I think the mix makes them a lot tastier than the common version.  As I mentioned earlier, having them fried earlier in the day meant that they were a bit dry but they still went down very well.  Looking over the scores, I think that the newbies (Karen, Carmen, Mike and Carla) were probably afraid of upsetting me as they scored everything pretty high... or maybe I'm a better cook than I think.  And Katie also liked the falafel and she's been at my dinners more than anyone else aside from Eric and perhaps Joanne...  So they were probably better than I thought.
  4. Fattoush: I had planned to make tabbouleh because I love it and I know that it's a fairly safe dish but Wadih said that fattoush is a lot better so I decided to make it.  And it was really good.  Eric and I had it tonight for dinner also and it still tasted yummy.  As Carla put it, it was very refreshing.  It's a salad made with a variety of vegetables and an olive oil based dressing and then it's adorned with pieces of fried pita bread (I used pita chips).  I also had some of the stuffing of the kibbeh balls left (see below) and so I put it on the table in case anyone wanted to add it to the salad.  I did and thought it went pretty well with it.
  5. Batenjein Metleh or fried eggplant:  this is a divine dish.  Wadih had told me about how back in Lebanon he used to make this and then stuff it in bread and eat it as a sandwich.  I actually used to eat this in Italy too as my mother made it and I also loved it.  And thankfully, since I've seen my mother make it, I knew that the secret in making it delicious was to slice the eggplant, cover them with salt and leave them to shed water overnight.  The recipe did not mention this step but to me it's essential.  Once you have washed them and squeezed out the water, they are thin enough that they can just be grilled instead of fried.  I also sprinkled olive oil, minced garlic and parsley on top just before serving.  It was definitely one of the best dishes of the night. 
  6. Kibbeh Balls:  These are interesting....balls made out of ground beef and bulgur cracked wheat stuffed with ground beef, onions, pine nuts and spices... then fried.  Like the falafel, they were a bit dry but I had so many things on the table that could be used as dips:  tahini, the yogurt sauce, the hummus... my friends just started to improvise!
  7. Lamb Shawarma:  this is lamb strips that are marinated overnight in Lebanese spices (a mixture of allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, fenugreek, cumin and salt - well the recipe called for ginger also but it just didn't sound very middle eastern to me so I omitted it), olive oil and vinegar and then grilled on a very hot grill.  The house got really smoky as I was cooking it but it was definitely worthy.  I had a little trouble finding the lamb (boned lamb shoulder) but then I decided to ask the butcher at my local Publix if he had any and he just told me that he was going to debone it for me if I could wait a little!  They're so nice at Publix!
    Richard decided that the eggplants, lamb and yogurt sauce made a pretty darn good taco so we all had to try for ourselves and... what do you know... we might have to go and suggest that Taqueria Del Sol add this to their menu. It'll become a favorite of those on a low carb diet.

Dessert was not quite a mezze but I did have 2 different ones.  I had decided that Baklava was just going to be too obvious so I looked at a variety of recipes and settled for two that sounded interesting: Awamat and Sfouf.  Can't tell much from the names really so I'll explain. 
Awamat doesn't contain any sugar.  It's really fried dough and it's only a sweet because it's dipped in sugar syrup.  The recipe called for 8 cups of pastry flour and that I supposed was to feed an entire school.  I made a ton of these little balls and still had a ton of dough left.  And to top it all off they weren't really that great (unless you very much like fried dough).  So as much as I hate to waste food, they ended up in the trash.  I couldn't even have any of my guests take them.  Eric and Richard commented that they looked like chicken nuggets (they did). 

Sfouf was a bit better.  This is a semolina cake.  It is very yellow not only because of the semolina but also because it's made with turmeric (no eggs interestingly enough).  I thought this was nice and it was also nice today.  I think I'll take the leftover to work tomorrow as I really must get back on my diet as a matter of urgency (read: can't get into my clothes anymore).  I served the cake with whipped cream, the aerosol type, and my guests liked it. 

The goody bag this time was a jar containing the Lebanese Mixed Spices I had used for the lamb and for the kibbeh balls and some homemade cookies (Bazarek) which have pistachios and sesame seeds and would go great with coffee or tea. 
This is it.  Lots of food, lots of drinks and lots of fun.  I still think that good food make people happy and happy people don't fight so I can only conclude that those that take us into wars have some kind of eating disorder...

Here is the menu with the scores:

Falafel   7.6
Labneh bi Toom  9.7
Fattoush  8.6
Batenjein Mekleh  9.6
Kibbeh Balls   9.0
Lamb Shawarma  9.1
Awamat  6.9
Sfouf   7.5
Overall Dinner  9.1

After L comes M and so we're moving South to Africa: Malawi.

Stay tuned....


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading the posting as always!
I totally agree with what you mention about good food and happy people. I didn't know real falafel is mad of two different beans... Keep us educated!


Anonymous said...

This sounds like a dream menu to me. What's not to love? Please share your menu for the--oops, I forgot the name--yogurt with mint, oregano, etc. dip. Sounds like the perfect thing for the 90 degree days coming up.

Giovanna said...

Ciao Rossy,

As always it is not only a culinary pleasure to read your blog, it is a very interesting trip to your place and I almost feel like a ghost at your Alpha Dinner table!!
A huge hug from Germany!