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For every traditionalist who loves the ritual of the turkey, ham, plum pudding and mince pies at Christmas, there is probably another who - for cultural, religious or dietary reasons - celebrates festive occasions differently.
Vegetarians and vegans are no longer the small minority that they once were and, even in families where the turkey still takes centre stage at Christmas, there’s a good chance there will be a diner in the group who marches to a different drummer.
Whether you want to have a completely meat-free meal, or simply offer some choice, deliciously aromatic Middle Eastern dishes could be the answer. Earlier this year I enjoyed discovering The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook by Salma Hage (Phaidon, £24.95) and it is a valuable reference for its wide range of appealingly simple dishes and reassuring voice of experience. All of the dishes are vegetarian, of course, but many are also vegan and most are suitable for coeliacs too, so they tick a lot of dietary boxes.
This is not a Middle Eastern meal - the much-loved Baba ganoush given below, for example, is only one of a major chapter devoted to the dips and mezzes that are central to the Middle Eastern way of eating - but these tasty and gimmick-free recipes should be well received by all.
There are little cultural links to our more familiar festive traditions - the cranberries in the spicy rice dish, for example - and the dessert has special relevance as it is also often served on Christmas Eve to celebrate the birth of Christ.
And, aside from the main event, these are also the sort of dishes that could be very welcome after the excesses of a traditional Christmas, when the system needs a rest. Either way, Middle Eastern cooking is well worth considering as part of the festive plan.
Creamy, garlicky, and addictive, it is no wonder that baba ganoush is famous around the globe. For the perfect accompaniment, carefully toast some Pita Bread directly over a low gas flame of your stove and use to dip them in.
Preparation time: 10 minutes + cooling time Cooking time: 30-45 minutes Serves: 4-6
3 eggplants (aubergines)
2 small cloves garlic
2 tablespoons Tahini (see below)
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil
handful pomegranate seeds, for sprinkling
salt and pepper
FOR THE TAHINI:
2 cups (9oz/250g toasted seasame seeds
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 - 2/3 cup (4-5 fl oz/120-150ml) olive oil, depending on taste
First make the tajhini. Blend the seeds and half of the oil in a food processor, and gradually add in the remaining oil or to taste. Keep in a screw-top jar in the refrigerator to use as required for up to a month.
Preheat the oven to 400°F/200°C/Gas Mark 6.
Put the eggplants (aubergines) onto a baking sheet, prick them all over with a fork then roast in the oven for 30-45 minutes, until soft. Once cool enough to handle, peel the skin off and discard. Set the flesh aside to cool completely.
Put the garlic into a mortar with a little salt and crush with pestle, then add the tahini and lemon juice and mix well.
When the eggplant flesh is cool, chop it finely, transfer to a bowl and add the garlic-tahini mixture. Season well and thoroughly combine all the ingredients. Place on a serving plate, then drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle on the pomegranate seeds.
Roasted sweet potato and cranberry spicy rice
Lemon juice, 7-spice, and good olive oil make a zesty dressing for this sweet potato dish. The dried cranberries and pomegranate seeds add freshness too, lifting the ingredients to more than the sum of their parts .The 7-spice blend is a classic Lebanese seasoning mix; just a teaspoon of it really lifts so many dishes.
Preparation time: 15 minutes Cooking time: 20 minutes
Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C/Gas Mark 5.
4 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz/100 g) long-grain brown rice, washed
l teaspoon ground cumin
2 large handfuls dried cranberries
1 handful fresh pomegranate seeds (optional)
4 scallions (spring onions), sliced
handful basil leaves
salt and pepper
FOR THE DRESSING
juice of 1 lemon
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon Lebanese 7-Spice Seasoning
salt and pepper
FOR THE LEBANESE 7-SPICE SEASONING
5 tablespoons ground allspice
3½ tablespoons pepper
3½ tablespoons ground cinnamon
5 tablespoons ground cloves
4 tablespoons grated nutmeg
4 tablespoons ground fenugreek
4 tablespoons ground ginger
First make the Lebanese 7-Spice Seasoning mixture: Mix all the ingredients together thoroughly and store in an airtight container to use as required. [Makes: about 1¾ cups (6 oz/175 g)]
Put the sweet potato wedges into a large bowl and toss with the olive oil, cumin seeds, salt, and pepper. Spread them out to a baking sheet and roast in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until soft and slightly charred on the edges.
Meanwhile, bring 1 cup (9 fl oz/250 ml) salted water to boil and add the rice and cumin. Cover and return to a boil. Reduce to a medium heat and let simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the rice is tender but retains a little bite. Add more water if necessary.
Mix together the ingredients for the dressing.
Toss the hot rice well with the dressing, cranberries, and pomegranate seeds, if using. Stir in the roasted sweet potatoes gently to avoid breaking them up too much. Top with the scallions and basil and season to taste.
Lebanese vegan moussaka
Every country and every region has their own version of this much-loved dish. This wholesome casserole (called maghmour) is a traditional Lebanese way of using simply eggplant, tomato sauce, and chickpeas.
Preparation time: 40 minutes Cooking time: 50 minutes
Preheat the oven to 4OO0F/200°C/Gas Mark 6.
2 large eggplants (aubergines)
4 tablespoons gluten-free flour
2 teaspoons Lebanese
7-Spice Seasoning (see above)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 (14-oz/400g) cans chickpeas, drained
salt and pepper
FOR THE TOMATO SAUCE
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 bay leaf
6 large tomatoes, finely chopped
7 sun-dried tomatoes, preserved in oil
2 tablespoons Tomato Paste (purée)
1 (14 oz/400g) can diced or chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon unsweetened pomegranate molasses
juice of 1/2 a lemon
salt and pepper
Slice the eggplants (aubergines) into 1/2-inch/1-cm discs. Mix the flour, spices, and a pinch of salt and pepper on a large plate. Dab each side of the eggplant discs in the flour and spice mix so they are lightly coated.
Lay them on a lined baking sheet, drizzle over the olive oil, and bake in the oven for about 10 minutes. Turn, then bake for another 10 minutes, or until crisp. Remove and cool.
In the meantime, make the tomato sauce. Heat the oil in a large skillet or frying pan over medium heat and sauté the onion for 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, then add the cumin and bay leaf and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Add the fresh chopped tomatoes, stir, and cook for 3 minutes.
Add the sun-dried tomatoes, tomato paste (purée), can of diced tomatoes, one-quarter of the can filled with water, pomegranate molasses, and lemon juice and cook for another 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally until you have a thick, rich, reduced sauce.
Season with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat and set aside. Remove the bay leaf.
Layer the eggplant discs, tomato sauce, and chickpeas in a deep baking pan and repeat until you have used all of your ingredients (3-4 layers, ideally finished with layer of tomato sauce). Bake in the oven for 40 minutes. Set aside to cool.
This really is a dish best served at room temperature when all the flavours are at their best.
Traditionally, this Lebanese rice pudding is made to celebrate the birth of a baby and served to all friends and family visiting the newborn in the first few days of his or her life. I can remember making it when my brothers and sisters were born. It is also often served on Christmas Eve to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Preparation time: 10 minutes + 2 hours resting and 2 hours chilling time
Cooking time: 40 minutes
¾ cup (4 oz/120 g) rice flour (ground rice)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground star anise
2 teaspoons ground caraway seeds
½ cup (3½ oz/100 g) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons rosewater
pistachios, pine nuts, flaked almonds, and dessicated coconut, to serve
Measure out 1 2/ 3 cups (14 fl oz/400 ml) cold water in a large bowl, add the flour and stir well. Set aside for 2 hours.
Pour 4½ cups (1¾ pints/1 litre) water into a large saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Carefully pour the flour-water mixture into the boiling water and stir well with a wooden spoon.
Reduce the heat to medium and gradually add the spices and sugar, stirring often, to prevent the mixture from sticking. Cook for 25-30 minutes, stirring frequently, until it thickens. Add the rosewater and mix well.
Use a ladle to divide the mixture between 6 small coffee cups or glasses. Sprinkle the pistachios, pine nuts, coconut, and flaked almonds on the top of each one.
Set aside to cool and then chill in the refrigerator for 2 hours, or until set, before serving.