The Lebanese Kitchen tells the story of a country whose cuisine is its greatest source of historic preservation.
Fewer Lebanese people live in the country than outside it. Many left amid years of occupation, from the Ottomans to the French and numerous others over the years, or they fled Lebanon’s 15-year civil war from 1975-1990. But, if the country has gone through periods of destabilization, its food has only gotten richer and more diverse. That is the story told via the recipes of The Lebanese Kitchen, published by Phaidon at the end of 2012.
Author Salma Hage was born and raised on her family’s farm in Mazraat Et Toufah, which translates to “apple hamlet,” reflecting the area’s abundance of fruit.
“I learned quite a bit from my grandmother,” said Hage, “as I spent a lot of time with her when I was growing up.”
One of the book’s strengths is its introduction, in which Hage recounts the history of Lebanon, its food customs and her own journey into the kitchen. She recalls making her first dish, mujadara — made from lentils, rice and caramelized onions — and serving it to her father.
“I remember my father, God rest his soul, he said to me, “That is wonderful, darling. I’m so pleased you can cook.”
She and her husband, Heni, immigrated with son Joe to England in the late 1960s, where Hage’s cooking helped support them. She worked her way up at a catering company, eventually becoming the head chef.
“I’m a professional English cook. I went to college and worked over 30 years as a cook, but at home… I cook Lebanese.”Homemade pickles soaked in vinegar brine are a staple of the Lebanese kitchen table.
“The preservation of foods when they are abundant and in season, called mouneh, was born out of necessity, but has over the centuries become a true art for the Lebanese.”
Vegetables are pickled at their ripest so that the taste of the seasons can be enjoyed all year long. Hage recalls that her sister-in-law’s signature pickling recipe included the rind of a watermelon.
“It was crystallized jam pieces made from watermelon, but not the flesh. You take off the green skin and use the part between the skin and the red flesh. This was really like nothing I’d ever tasted before.”
And that’s exactly what many cooks will say about the 500 traditional recipes in her book. Take, for instance, grapefruit and onion salad made with pink grapefruits, red onions, fresh mint, olive oil and salt. Only five ingredients, but did it ever occur to you to put them together?
Preserved lemons with sea salt, bay leaves, and pink peppercorns are cured for a month and then baked with red snapper or mullet and served with rice. Chicken livers with lemon and pomegranate, risotto with crab and cilantro, and shoulder of lamb with cranberry beans are just a few of the entrees included. There are traditional recipes like pita, falafel and hummus, but in multiple variations that all sound equally tasty. Basics — yogurts, dressings, breads, and stocks — are also included. And for dessert, try the lemon, rosewater and cardamom crème brulee, or the plum and orange flower water tart. Serve with some homemade honeycomb ice cream with pistachios and rose petals.
History and recipes aside, the photographs of Lebanon in the book are breathtaking. You may find yourself distracted from the stove because you’re too busy staring at the pictures. Refined and wholesome, The Lebanese Kitchen is a culinary adventure that will more than likely leave you wanting just one more bite.For specialty ingredients, which many of the recipes call for, head to Tampa’s Al-Salam Arabic supermarket at 12846 N. 56th St., (9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week). Al-Salam has one of the largest selections of Middle Eastern spices in town.