Lebanese mezze

Lebanese mezze served with flatbread in the Italian sunshine

I thoroughly enjoyed my last online cooking lesson with Cinzia in Florence and her recipes for ravioli with zucchini and garlic sauce and tiramisu have been a big hit with my friends and followers (especially the tiramisu which is the ultimate lockdown comfort food!)

But the experience of being grounded is starting to take its toll on all of us and as much as I love Italian food I’ve been missing the different foods that I normally eat on my travels more than anything else. So last weekend I had another online cooking lesson with Traveling Spoon and this one took me to Beirut. It’s three years since I went to the Lebanon but the country blew me away with its beauty, resilience and of course its food, which I’ve always loved but rarely cooked. It was an absolute pleasure to spend a few hours with Tania and her mother during which I was taught to make the most delicious Lebanese mezze consisting of hummus, baba ghanouj and tabbouleh which I served with some quick and easy Lebanese flatbread. The conversation was as good as the food and reinforced my belief in the power of food to connect us. I will most definitely be taking Tania up on the invitation to visit her home and share fresh pomegranate from her garden when I’m able to return!

Ingredients

For the hummus

1 can (15oz) of chickpeas 
3 tbsp tahini paste 
1 lemon, zested and juiced 
Salt to taste 

For the baba ganouj

1 big round eggplant (aubergine)
3 tbsp tahini paste
1 fresh lemon, juiced
Salt to taste

For the tabbouleh

A large bunch of flat parsley
A small bunch of fresh mint, around quarter of the amount of parsley
2 tomatoes
1 red onion (or a bunch of spring onions)
2 lemons, juiced plus the zest of 1 of the lemons
3/4 cup olive oil
A good handful of fine bulgur wheat
Ground allspice to taste
Ground cinnamon to taste
Ground black pepper to taste
Salt to taste
Ingredients for Tania’s delicious tabbouleh

Method

We started with the hummus which Tania explained is actually the Arabic word for chickpea! I’ve made hummus before and it always had more than three ingredients but Tania’s version, without any garlic or oil, was simple, delicious and very healthy. Although its possible to make hummus by hand, we used a food processor. Basically all you have to do is roughly mash the chickpeas and then add the tahini and lemon juice and mix into a smooth paste. Add salt to taste. If its too dry add water rather than oil, the taste is ‘cleaner’ and there are far fewer calories! We served the hummus in a flat dish, decorating with paprika on the back of a fork, some parsley and a glug of olive oil (but this is entirely optional).

Next up baba ghanouj! I’ve never made baba ghanouj before and Tania taught me the traditional way which means cooking the eggplant on an open gas flame which gives a delicious smoky flavour. If you don’t have a gas flame you can cook the eggplant under the grill. The aim is to completely blacken the skin so that it comes away easily when you rub it under running cold water. Don’t forget to pierce the eggplant first or there is a danger it could explode! Once its been pierced the juices will be able to run out as it cooks so you might want to protect your stove or grill with some foil.

Once the eggplant is cooked and peeled, chop roughly it up and then place it in a bowl and mash with a pestle or similar (the end of a rolling pin works just as well). Then add the tahini and keep mixing until you have a rough paste. Finally add lemon juice and salt to taste.

I love the smoky flavour of the finished dish but the texture was also wonderful – creamy but not ‘slimy’ as baba ghanouj can sometimes be. Tania likes to serve her dish with a sprinkle of pomegranate jewels but as pomegranate are ridiculously expensive in Italy I substituted with some finely chopped tomato and served with a little olive oil (again, not essential or liked by everyone so leave this out if you prefer).

Finally we made the tabbouleh. Tania advised me that I should cut the parsley with a knife rather than the chopper I usually use as fewer cuts ensure that the parsley retains its flavour. Simply organise the parsley into bunches and chop finely with a knife. Then do the same with the mint having first removed the leaves from the stems which are generally too tough to eat.

Chopping the parsley once only with a knife retains the flavour and freshness

Next chop the tomatoes and onion, adding pepper to the onion. Place all the herbs and vegetables in a bowl, pour over the oil and season with lemon juice, the zest of one of the lemons, allspice and cinnamon – I used around a tsp of allspice and 1/2 a tsp of cinnamon. Finally sprinkle over a good handful of bulgur wheat and mix well.

I was sceptical that the bulgur could be added raw as I’ve always cooked it previously, but even though my bulgur wasn’t fine it soaked up the seasoned olive oil and lemon juice becoming deliciously soft by the time we sat down to eat in the Italian sunshine.

The bulgur wheat soaks up the oil, lemon juice and seasoning so you don’t need to soak it in advance

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