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Sunday 21 July 2013

Stuffed Vine Leaves on a Bed of Lamb Chops - Recipes from the Levant

Regular readers will know that I am a sucker for a good picture, I really like my cookbooks to show me what I'm aiming for and believe a picture (of food) is worth a thousand words. So I surprised myself with how much I liked Levant - Recipes and Memories from the Middle East by Anissa Helou.
The book is packed full of recipes, but also tells a personal story of life and food from the Middle East and North Africa. The book reads like a journal a very personal account and the only photographs are a few of Anissa and her family, the success of this book is the strength of the story- telling which paints a picture of the delights of the Levant, far more vivid than any photograph.

About the Author
Anissa Helou is a food writer, journalist, broadcaster and blogger.  Born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon and Syria, she knows the Mediterranean as only a well-travelled native can. She is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks including Offal:The Fifth Quarter; Modern Mezze; Savoury Baking from the Mediterranean; Mediterranean Street Food; Street Cafe Morocco and Lebanese Cuisine, which was a finalist for the prestigious Andrew Simon awards and chosen as one of the Los Angeles Times' favourite books.  Anissa has just launched Koshari Street  an Egyptian inspired street food experience, in London and plans to launch others very soon.

Chapter 1 - En Famille
Anissa starts this chapter with a detailed description of family meals, bringing in characters such as her grandmother and aunt, and giving us many insights into her own character. Recipes include: Mini Dumplings and Meatballs Soup, Tabbuleh (learn how to make it properly), Pumpkin Dip, Stuffed Courgettes and Aubergines, Stuffed Vine Leaves on a Bed of Lamb Chops (recipe below).

Stuffed Vine Leaves on a Bed of Lamb Chops
Chapter 2 - On the Farm
In this chapter Anissa takes us back to her father's ancestral home in the Syrian mountains. The recipes include several different pickling, preserving and curing recipes.
Chapter 3 - In the Souk
It seems there were many different souks in Beirut when Anissa was a child, but this chapter is all about the street food sold there. Recipes include Omelette Sandwiches, Camel Kebabs, Sesame Galettes and Iranian Saffron Ice Cream.
Chapter 4 - In the Restaurant 
This chapter starts with a couple of versions of Fattush, one of my favourite salads, I made Las Salinas Fattush or Bread Salad. There are a number of fish and seafood dishes and a Lebanese Steak Tartare made with lamb.  As you would expect there are various versions of Hommus (Hummus) and labneh, strained yogurt, dips.  There are a wide range of recipes, both meat and vegetable based: Turkish Kebabs sit alongside Stuffed Aubergine Fatteh.

Las Salinas Fattush
 Chapter 5 - At the Bakery
Anissa's memories are of home bakers preparing their own fillings or toppings to take to the bakery to be  combined with the baker's own dough and baked in the Bakery oven. This chapter contains recipes for everything from Pide, a soft oval bread that Turks eat most frequently, to Borek the most ancient type of Mediterranean savoury pastries made with filo pastry.
Chapter 6 - At the Sweet Maker's 
The sweet recipes of the Levant are something really different including Ma'carun (Aniseed Fritters) and deep fried Kellage, a favourite for Ramadan feasts.  As Pistachio nuts are a favourite of mine, I have bookmarked the Balluriyeh or Sweet Pistachio Pie and also like the look of the Sesame Cookies and Fragrant Shortbread Biscuits, neither of these recipes require any unusual ingredients and look simple to follow.  The chapter closes with a recipe for Mango Ice Cream, a fittingly exotic dessert which is also simple to make. 
An excellent glossary with full details of the particular ingredients of Levantine cookery. Some ingredients get up to half a page of description, others a short paragraph.

Stuffed Vine Leaves on a Bed of Lamb Chops
Serves 4

8 thin lamb chops (about 600g/1lb 5oz total weight), most of the fatty bits trimmed
Sea salt
1 cinnamon stick
200g (7oz) medium-sized fresh or preserved vine leaves
Stock from cooking the lamb chops
Juice of 1 lemon or to taste

For the stuffing
125g (4 1/2 oz) short-grain white rice (bomba, Calaspara or Egyptian), rinsed under cold water and drained
200g (7ox) freshly minced lean lamb, from the shoulder or neck (either ask your butcher to mince the lamb or do it yourself using the fine attachment on a meat grinder)
2 tbsp water
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground allspice or Lebanese seven-spice mixture 
1/4 tsp finely ground black pepper

Put the lamb chops in a saucepan, cover with water and place over a medium heat.  As the water is about to boil, skim away any scum that rises to the surface, then add a little salt, and the cinnamon. Cover the pan with a lid, reduce the heat and let the stock bubble gently for 15 minutes.  Lift the chops out onto a plate, strain and reserve the stock for later.

Meanwhile, make the stuffing.  Place the rice in a mixing bowl, add the minced meat and water and season with the spices and a little salt.  Mix with your hands to blend well.  Pinch off a little mixture and sear in a hot pan to taste, then adjust the seasoning if necessary.

Choose a pan with straight sides and large enough to arrange the lamb chops in a tight even layer on the bottom.  Put the vine leaves (fresh or preserved) in a colander and run boiling water over are using preserved leaves, rinse these beforehand in cold water, at least a couple of times, in order to get rid of some of the briny taste. 

Take one vine leaf, cut and discard any stem and lay it flat on your work surface, smooth side down the the stem end nearest to you.  Arrange 1/2-1 1/2 teaspoons of stuffing, depending on the size of the leaf, in a thin raised line along the side of the leaf facing you.  The line should be thinner than your little finger, set about 1.5 cm  (5/8 in) either side.  Fold each side over the rice, in a line that slightly tapers toward the bottom , then fold and tuck the top edges over the stuffing and roll from the stem end, neatly but loosely in order to leave enough  space for the rice to expand during cooking

Place the rolled leaf, loose edge down, over the lamb chops, on one side of the pan.  Continue filling, rolling and arranging the vine leaves, side by side, lining the sides of the pan first and making one layer at a time, until you used all the leaves.  If you have any leftover stuffing.  put in a small pan, add an equivalent amount of water and cook for 20 minutes to serve on the side. 

Pour some, or all, of the reserved stock over the rolled leaves until they are barely immersed.  If you do not have enough stock, add water.  Add a little salt, bearing in mind the saltiness of the vine leaves, and shake the pan to swirl the water and dissolve the salt.  Put an overturned heatproof plate over the leaves, to stop them from unrolling during cooking, cover the pan with lid and place over a  medium-high heat.  Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to medium and let the pot bubble gently for 50 minutes.  Add the lemon juice and cook for another 10 minutes.  It is a good idea to test one vine leaf, before you take them off the heat, to make sure the rice is properly cooked.  Remove form the heat and leave to sit, covered, on a work surface for about 10 minutes.

The traditional way of serving this dish is to turn out the contents of the pan onto a serving platter as if it were a cake, and this why you need a pan with straight sides.  You'll also need to wear heatproof gloves while performing this operation.  First pour to the cooking juices into a bowl while holding back the stuffed vine leaves using the plate covering them.  Remove the plate and place a big round, flat serving platter over the top of the pan. Hold it firmly against the pan with the flat of one hand.  Slide the pan slowly over the edge of the work surface and put your other hand underneath it.  Lift the pan off and quickly turn it upside down, then slide the platter onto your worktop and slowly lift the pan off to uncover a 'cake' of cooked stuffed vine leaves topped with the juicy lamb chops.

Alternatively, you can spoon the rolled leaves out, a few at a time, and arrange them in neat layers in a serving dish, putting the lamb chops on top or all around them.  Baste with some of the cooking juice and serve immediately with a bowl of yoghurt.
'Cake' of cooked stuffed vine leaves topped with juicy lamb chops
Who is it for?

The recipes are mostly fairly easy to make, there are some unusual ingredients however, my feeling is that this is a book for a more confident cook, willing to take a few risks.  It's also a book for people who like to 'read' cookbooks, not just cook from them, as each chapter has several pages of autobiographical introduction and every recipe is also introduced with interesting information and stories.

The book is packed with 150 recipes and enough stories to keep you entertained as well as well fed.  Instructions are detailed, as you will have gathered from the recipe above, are despite the complexity of the recipe I chose, remarkably easy to follow.  The Glossary is excellent and there is also a Bibliography, useful if you want to further your middle eastern cookery skills.

The chapter headings are not terribly helpful for finding particular types of recipe, you really have to use the index, but the structure has a charm of it's own which I enjoyed. 

Worth Buying? 
 I'm sure you have probably gathered that I enjoyed reading this book and cooking from it too.  If you would like to know how to cook authentic Middle Eastern food, then this book should certainly have a place on your book shelf.

Recipes and memories from the Middle East
Anissa Helou
Publisher - Harper Collins
RRP Ā£20

I was provided with a copy of Levant by Harper Collins to review, I was not paid for his review and all opinions are my own.

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At 22 July 2013 at 14:40 , Blogger Karen S Booth said...

SNAP! I also LOVED this book, it resonated with me on so many levels and I have used it several times - excellent review as always Janice and I need to get a wiggle on to write mine! XXX Karen PS: Lovely to chat last night :-)

At 22 July 2013 at 21:45 , Blogger Janice said...

Look forward to hearing your views on the book and seeing what you made, I'll certainly be dipping into this delightful book again.

At 23 July 2013 at 05:28 , Anonymous Liz Thomas said...

Wow! You've sold me on this one. I adore Middle Eastern food and I NEED this book. Amazon, here I come!


At 23 July 2013 at 21:13 , Anonymous kellie@foodtoglow said...

I haven't seen this book yet, but know of the author. I LOVE Middle Eastern flavours and frequently pop them into a dish with Scottish ingredients, so I must investigate this. I love Ottolenghi (like everyone else in the food world these days) as well as the cookbook "Lebanese Kitchen"by Salma Hage. She isn't strong on story but the recipes are clear (not many photos though, so nil point from you, I suppose!) and authentic. Bethany Kehdy's The Jewelled Kitchen is one I am waiting for the postman to deliver. Bethany is impossibly beautiful but a good cook and writer.

At 23 July 2013 at 22:45 , Anonymous Miss Messy said...

Yum! love the look of this book!

At 25 July 2013 at 22:00 , Blogger Traceyr said...

mmm I do love a stuffed vine leave. :)


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I love to read your comments and try to reply when I can. I have had to enable comment moderation due to high levels of spam, so it may take a little time before your comment is visible. Please let me know if you make one of my recipes or if you have any questions I will try to answer them. Janice

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