This weekend finds me in London, in the thick of the Food Blogger Connect (FBC) conference. There’s a sensory overload that you come to expect at such events, with a great many people to meet, foods to eat and a diverse range of presentations (not least a few of my own devising). While I’m far from done with the conference yet (and may return to the topic in due course), a much anticipated part of the weekend was the official launch, on Saturday evening, of The Jewelled Kitchen, the first cookbook by Bethany Kehdy, founder of the conference (and of Taste Lebanon, with whom I took a very memorable tour a couple of years ago). Herewith a look at her book.
Finally getting my hands on The Jewelled Kitchen brought the tastes of Lebanon rushing back: lemon, olive oil and garlic, garlic, garlic – so much centres around that particular trio; allspice – used there as we might use black pepper here; pomegranate molasses, lending its sour stickiness to meats and dips; za’atar – wild thyme with sumac and sesame seeds – in pastries, on breads and just about everywhere; labneh, or strained yoghurt, also found at every turn; and sugary syrups, sweet with the scent of rose petals and orange blossoms.
These flavours and more permeate the pages of Beth’s book. “This is not fusion food,” she said at the launch, “it’s about traditional dishes and authentic ingredients.” And, yes, the classic Middle Eastern dishes are here: hummus, shown in its many different guises, including classic whipped hummus (hummus b tahini) with lamb, warm hummus in a cumin and olive oil broth (hummus balila) and swimming chickpeas (hummus musabaha); kebbeh – meat pounded with bulgar, shaped and served in many different ways, both raw and cooked; tabbouleh the Lebanese way, heavy on the parsley; the smoky aubergine dip, baba ghanouj (though you learn, in Lebanon, to refer to it as mutabal); there are expected appearances from fattoush (bread salad) and falafel, along with how-tos for characteristic regional inclusions, such as harissa and preserved lemons. But there are recipes, too, which introduce less familiar ingredients, like freekeh – a smoky, chewy grain, made from wheat harvested young, sun-dried and roasted over an open fire – here cooked with lamb and rhubarb; and arak – an aniseed spirit drunk widely in Lebanon – and which Beth has added to mussels, among other things.
Whatever the recipe, there is a sense, in the book, of both the vibrancy of Middle Eastern food and the generosity of the Middle Eastern table. It is that same feeling that you get from knowing Beth and her cooking. “Please come,” she said before the launch, “we’ve been cooking for two weeks, we have a lot of food.” Nobody needed to be asked twice.
Red Hot Roasties (Batata Harra)
The development of The Jewelled Kitchen has, I know, been a long process and a lot of work. It was at an embryonic stage when I travelled on the Taste Lebanon tour with Beth in 2011, when talk was of going to different parts of the Middle East on recipe research missions; it was much closer to completion when Beth got in touch at the end of 2012 wondering if I would road test some of the book’s potato recipes. Knowing Beth, and having experienced, at first hand, her cooking prowess, I was very happy to do so. This recipe – her version of the mezze dish, batata harra – and the burnt tomato jam to accompany it (below) are some of those I tested and very pleased I am to reproduce them here.
The dish features roasted potato chunks with an abundance of that classic Lebanese trio of lemon, olive oil and garlic, along with fresh coriander and chilli. Despite the name, these don’t – as is typical of Lebanese cuisine – possess a fiery heat, as the chillies called for are mild and are deseeded, though you could bump up the heat if you so desire, perhaps with the addition of some chilli flakes or with a hot paprika. This nominally serves four, although, as ever when it comes to potatoes in a roasted form, I could make serious inroads into this amount on my own.
- Makes around 4 servings & takes approx. 30 min to prep + 45 min to roast the potatoes
- 1kg potatoes, preferably a floury variety, peeled and chopped into approx. 4cm cubes
- 15g sea salt, plus extra for seasoning
- 80ml olive oil
- 1 handful coriander leaves, finely chopped, plus extra for sprinkling
- 1 bulb garlic (about 8 cloves), cloves separated, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 small, mild red chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
- 1 tsp paprika
- freshly ground black pepper
- juice of 1 lemon
You’ll also need:
- A large roasting tin – mine was around 24cm x 30cm and 4cm deep.
- Preheat your oven to 200C and rinse the chopped potatoes under cold running water to remove surface starch.
- Bring about 1l of water to the boil in a saucepan over a high heat. Add the potatoes and the salt, allow the water to come back to the boil, lower the heat, cover and cook for about 5 minutes or until the edges of the potatoes start to soften.
- Drain the potatoes, return to the pan, cover the pan with a lid or tea-towel and shake for about 30 seconds to rough up the edges of the potatoes. Leave covered with a tea-towel to absorb any steam.
- Add the olive oil to your roasting tin and place in the oven for 5-10 minutes or until sizzling hot.
- Remove the tin from the oven, add the potatoes and spoon over the oil to ensure they are well coated. Return to the oven for about 35-40 minutes or until lightly golden.
- While the potatoes are roasting, prepare and mix together the coriander, garlic, chillies, and paprika. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.
- When the potatoes are lightly roasted, remove from the oven, toss with the coriander and garlic mixture and return to the oven for another 10 minutes or so, until crisp and golden.
- Remove from the oven, transfer to a serving dish, squeeze over the lemon juice and sprinkle with chopped coriander. These are lovely served warm with some fried eggs and a generous amount of burnt tomato & chilli jam (recipe below).
- I like to add some sliced spring onions to these before serving and, as suggested above, you could add more chilli heat with some chilli flakes or a hot paprika.
Burnt Tomato & Chilli Jam
This is Beth’s take on a sweet and savoury speciality from Marrakesh and, to be honest, merely knowing that it was from Marrakesh – a name which possesses an Arabian Nights allure – was enough to make me want to try this out. Knowing, now, what it tastes like is enough to make me want to make it again (and again).
The recipe itself couldn’t be simpler: tomatoes, onions, garlic and some fragrant others, all baked together for an hour or so, then blitzed and seasoned. Summer is, of course, a great time to make this, when the odds of getting a half-decent tomato hereabouts increase greatly, but even in the dead of winter, this recipe can do much to liven up even the sorriest of tomato specimens. And no matter when you make this, doubling up the amounts below to make a bigger batch is always a good idea.
- Makes around 450ml & takes approx. 20 min to prep + 1 hour to cook
- 1kg tomatoes, quartered (or cut into eighths if very large)
- 1 small red onion (around 100-125g), sliced into 5mm rings
- 2 red chillies, deseeded (optional) and thinly sliced
- 5 fat garlic cloves, crushed with the blade of a knife
- 5cm piece root ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 tblsp olive oil
- 0.5 tsp coriander seeds
- 0.25 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tblsp clear honey, or to taste
- sea salt, to taste
- freshly ground black pepper, to taste
You’ll also need:
- A large baking tray – mine was around 24cm x 30cm – and a food processor or hand blender to blend the tomato jam.
- Preheat your oven to 190C.
- Mix together the tomatoes, onion, chillies, garlic, ginger, olive oil, coriander seeds and cinnamon and transfer to your baking tray. Bake for about 1 hour, or until the liquid from the tomatoes has reduced considerably and the mixture is starting to dry out. Shake the tray every so often and stir the contents to prevent sticking. Some of the edges of the tomatoes will burn, which adds to the characteristic flavour of the dish.
- Transfer the cooked tomato mixture to a bowl and blitz with a hand blender to your desired consistency (or alternatively use a food processor). Add the honey and season to taste with salt and black pepper.
- Serve immediately – with the roasties above, with any kind of eggs, with flatbreads, cheeses or whatever else takes your fancy – or transfer to a sterilised glass jar, cover with a thin layer of olive oil and seal. You can keep the jar in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, topping up with oil after each use.
- I think that some black mustard seeds, fried briefly in oil, might be a nice addition to the finished jam; or perhaps some cumin seeds, toasted in a dry frying pan until fragrant.