A Taste of Lebanon

When I was a kid, my mother liked to tell me the story of how she and my father met some of their friends back in the day. You see, Mom and Dad didn’t go to university directly after finishing high school; Dad earned a college diploma first, and Mom worked for a while. This meant that they were a few years older (and hopefully more mature) than most of their classmates. Not only that, but they had gotten married before they started university as well, which was (and I think still is) extremely unusual. This combination of factors meant that they didn’t really fit in with a lot of their peers. However, there was an extremely small community of international students attending the university at the time, and a lot of them were also older, and few were even married couples. My parents naturally fell in with this group of students and they became great friends. This meant that my parents (who are both white and from not only small towns, but military small towns) learned a lot about a number of international cultures and foods when otherwise they probably wouldn’t have done so.

A number of their friends were from Lebanon, and one of them (or possible a few of them, I may be misremembering) wanted to help publish a Lebanese cookbook to be sold in Canada. It was to include a lot of dishes that were common knowledge in Lebanon, but were considered “unusual” and “exotic” at the time throughout most of Canada. My parents got to be the testers for a lot of these dishes, since the authors were trying to tailor the recipes to a wider audience. Always enthusiastic about trying new foods, my parents were very happy guinea pigs.

Now, I think that A Taste of Lebanon: Cooking Today the Lebanese Way (Mary Salloum, 1983) is the book that this eventually became. My father bought my mother a copy for Christmas the year it first came out. My parents used that book regularly until it was passed down to me a few years ago when I started to show a greater interest in cooking.

Imagine my surprise, then, to stumble upon a brand new copy of this book at the Mid-East Food Centre; I didn’t realize that it was still in print! Not bad, considering it’s been more than 35 years. A quick search online revealed that it’s also available online as well. I would definitely highly recommend getting a copy of this book if you’re interested in Lebanese cooking even a little bit. As a bonus, it is a Canadian publication, so it focuses on ingredients that are actually available here.

Finding this book still for sale prompted me to go back to my own copy and make one of the easiest of the recipes therein: hommous bi tahini, i.e. chick pea dip with sesame seed paste. You can buy a large variety of types of hummus in just about every chain grocery store these days, since it’s considered healthy and trendy now. But when I was a kid my parents had to make it for us. Actually, since it’s a no-cook recipe (all you need is a blender), it makes a lot of sense to make your own hummus if you can.

I based the prices here on the everyday listings found on the Superstore website; you could probably find a lot of these ingredients even cheaper if you shop the sales.

Suraj chick peas @ $0.88 for a 540mL can = $0.88
Alkanater tahina @ $8.58 for 907ml, 60ml used = $0.57
Rooster Garlic @ $0.58 for 3 bulbs with 10 cloves each, 1 clove used = $0.02
Windsor iodized table salt @ $1.28 for 1kg, 2.84g used = $0.004
No Name lemon juice @ $2.48 for 946ml, 60ml used = $0.16

Total cost for 1 batch = $1.634

Now compare that to the pre-made prices, which start at $3.47 for a comparable amount, and go up to about $5.00 for the fancier stuff. That’s a pretty big saving if you make it yourself, and it’ll add up if you’re the kind of person who eats it regularly!

Now, my favourite way to eat hummus is on fresh pita bread — and one of the next recipes on my list is pita bread itself, which is also in this cookbook. But I know a lot of health-conscious people prefer it as a veggie dip, as it’s great with sliced sweet peppers, carrots, or celery. (Of course, it’s vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free too — not that these dietary trends were even on the radar of this classic food.) A Taste of Lebanon recommends that hummus and pita be served with any fish recipe, baked kibbi, tabouli, barbequed chicken, or shish kabob. It is truly one of the most versatile dishes I have ever made.

Resolutions

1. Crafting

This is a two-part resolution. Firstly, I’d like to use up the materials I have purchased over the years, and/or use recycled or thrifted materials whenever possible.

Secondly, I’d like to participate in more group or community projects, like Mochimochi Land’s Let’s Knit a Ball Pit — ideally using materials previously specified. The ball pit will be a part of Vogue Knitting LIVE in New York City, and once the event is over they will be donated to the American Foundation for Children with AIDS. I contributed the two knitted balls in the photo above to this project, and I really enjoyed it! I hope that they arrive in time. I’d like to keep the ball rolling, as it were, and donate my time and skills to other events, even if it’s something as simple as hats for the newborn babies at the local children’s hospital.

2. Environmental

I would like to try to decrease our household’s reliance on single-use plastic, and to continue to reuse, repurpose, and recycle. To me, that doesn’t mean being rid of plastics entirely; actually, I think it would be rather wasteful to completely be rid of the plastics we do have, just to buy all new replacements in another material. Rather, I’d like to commit to using recycled plastics, either post-consumer recycled commercial products, or finding a new home for second-hand plastic products, like the lunch boxes above that I bought at a thrift store.

3. In the Kitchen

I want to expand my cooking knowledge, skills, and style — while at the same time trying to keep it reasonably healthy. I think I’ve been stuck in a bit of a rut lately, and I want to do better! To that end, I have purchased even more second-hand cookbooks that I’m not only going to try out, but that I’m going to read through for ideas. At Thing 1’s request, I am looking into more Japanese food:

Sushi by Ryuichi Yoshii (1998)
The Japanese Kitchen by Kimiko Barber (2004)
Ten-Minute Bento by Megumi Fujii (2007)

Of all of the books that I have thrifted lately, I think I am most excited about The Japanese Kitchen, which helps break down and de-mystify each ingredient, and Ten Minute Bento, which is all about quick and easy (and I think will become a favourite cookbook to pull out to prep dinner on busy weeknights). There is a lot about Japanese cooking that I don’t know, but these books look like they’ll really help me get a better grasp on it.

In a more general vein, I have also picked up:

Gordon Ramsay’s Passion for Flavour by Gordon Ramsay (1996)
Deliciously Dairy Free: Fresh and Simple Lactose-Free Recipes for Healthy Eating Every Day by Lesley Waters (2015)
Gourmet Meals in Crappy Little Kitchens by Jennifer Schaertl (2010)
More Bread Machine Magic by Linda Rehberg and Lois Conway (1997)
Jamie Oliver’s FoodTube Presents: The Cake Book by Cupcake Jemma (2014)
Cocktails for Book Lovers by Tessa Smith McGovern (2014)

Now, some of these, like the cupcake book and the cocktail book, are just for fun — but shouldn’t cooking be fun? The dairy-free one and the one about cooking in small kitchens (and I have to say, that title grabbed my attention) are probably the ones I’d use the most, though. Yet every cookbook is a kind of inspiration for me, even if I don’t try a single dish.

4. Business

I think that it’s time for my business to expand from flea markets to online. I think I will start with local sales, since a lot of my products are both heavy and quite breakable. I just don’t know that it would be cost-effective to try to ship vintage Pyrex or, heaven forbid, cast iron cookware. But vintage Tupperware is both hardy and light enough to make the trip! I think that this expansion will challenge my photography skills (since product photography is quite different than casual snaps) and my organization skills. I’m also looking at how to make it all as environmentally-sound as possible; I especially don’t want to package items in styrofoam, bubble wrap, or air-filled bags, since they’re all single-use plastic. I’m looking into wool and straw and other biodegradable options. People shipped things without breaking them long before plastic was invented, so there have to be options. The question is, can I keep it cost-effective? Challenges, challenges!

So what are your resolutions for the New Year?

Kitchen Gifts

Of course, because my friends and family know that I enjoy spending time in the kitchen, a lot of my Christmas gifts this year centered around that.

One of my friends gifted me with some delicious Chex Party Mix and a lovely loaf of Makivnyk (a Ukrainian style poppy seed tea roll) from the Black Walnut Bakery. Oh, and Thing 1 gave me the Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix In A Jar that she’d made, thus ensuring that she would get to eat some of them too.

I also acquired a number of cookbooks over the holidays, some as gifts, others from thrift stores or as bargain books.

The Perfect Pie Book by Anne Marshall, 1984 (thrifted)
Hershey’s 1934 Cookbook, Hershey Chocolate Company, 1971 (thrifted)
Anita Stewart’s Canada by Anita Stewart, 2008 (thrifted — and I’ve wanted my own copy for quite a while)
Bread! Simple and Satisfying Recipes for Your Bread Machine by Kathrun Hawkins, 2006 ($4.00 at Dollarama)
Pumpkin Butternut & Squash by Elsa Petersen-Schepelern, 2000 (gift)

My parents gave me an Instant Pot and a handmade apron, my brother gave me a copy of Jamie Cooks Italy (since I’m a huge Jamie Oliver fan), and a friend gave me a Paderno tamagoyaki pan.

I can’t wait to try out all of my new toys!

Excellent Potato Bread Recipe

I finally had a chance to try out one of the recipes from the 1877 The Home Cook Book that I was so happy to find on Saint Patrick’s Day! It was a very interesting exercise to try to recreate such an old recipe. Here’s the original text:

EXCELLENT BREAD
Mrs. Geo. W. Pitkin.

Four potatoes mashed fine, four teaspoons of salt, two quarts of lukewarm milk, one-half cake compressed yeast dissolved in one-half cup of warm water, flour enough to make a pliable dough ; mould with hands well greased with lard ; place in pans, and when sufficiently light, it is ready for baking.

You’ll notice that it gives no cooking time or temperature, no approximate yield, no idea the volume of mashed potatoes, how big a cake of yeast measures (and what kind of yeast — the book gives multiple recipes for how to make your own), or how much flour to use. I’m really glad this wasn’t the first loaf of bread I’d ever made! Although I guess part of the point of these recipes is that they assume that all readers will have a certain breadth of knowledge base.

As it turns out, this recipe makes 4-5 loaves, depending on the size of your loaf pan. I honestly didn’t even have a bowl big enough to mix all of the ingredients, so I had to stir everything in shifts. It all turned out quite well, though, so I thought I’d share my interpretation of the recipe. Hopefully it’s a little more easily-repeatable than the original; I’ve also halved the quantities in my version for ease of cooking in a modern kitchen. The end result is a white bread that is still a little heavier and more filling, due to the potatoes. It also stays moist much longer than a straight white loaf.

Excellent Potato Bread
Yields 2 large loaves

In a small bowl, mix together:
2 packages (14g) quick-rise instant yeast
1/4 cup warm water
Wait for yeast to activate; if it foams up, it is good to use.
While waiting for yeast, peel and chop:
2 potatoes
Peeled, this should yield about 265g of uncooked potato.
Place potatoes in a stove-safe pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork. Alternately, you can cook the potatoes in a microwave-safe casserole: place potatoes in the dish, cover with water, and cook on high until they can be easily pierced by a fork, about 12 minutes. No matter how you prepare the potatoes, drain them once cooked and mash them until they are no longer lumpy. Set aside to cool somewhat.
In a very large bowl, combine:
4 cups warm milk
2 tsp salt
Stir. Add the yeast mixture and the potatoes to the mixture, stir well.
While stirring with a sturdy wooden spoon, gradually add:
8 cups flour
As the end of adding the flour nears, the mixture may become too stiff to stir with a spoon. If it does, it can be stirred with floured hands in the bowl.

Flour a flat surface and hands generously. Turn the dough out of the bowl, scraping if necessary. Knead the bread for about 10 minutes, until it is springy. If the dough is too sticky on the hands or flat surface, add a bit more flour, but add it gradually and only add as much as absolutely necessary. The dough should be moist but not sticky.

Oil or use cooking spray on a large mixing bowl. Form the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl. Cover the bowl with a clean, damp tea towel. Place the bowl in a warm, dry area with no drafts. Allow the dough to rise until double, about 1 hour.

Grease two loaf pans. If you use smaller loaf pans (8.5″x4.5″), they will end up with a “mushroom top” loaf like the one pictured. If you use larger 9.5″x5.5″ pans, the bread will be a more uniform shape.
Divide the dough into two even portions, form each into a loaf shape and put each one into its own loaf pan. Cover with a damp towel and allow to rise again in a warm, draft-free area until double, about one hour.

Near the end of the rising time, preheat your oven to 350°F (175°F). Bake for about 30 minutes, checking often near the end of that time to make sure that they do not overcook. Verify that the bread is done by removing them from the pan and tapping them on the bottom. When cooked through, the loaf should make a hollow sound. Remove the loaves from the pans immediately and place them on a wire cooling rack.

As with all bread, this kind is best served immediately. To keep it at its freshest, slice it only when it is about to be eaten. This bread will keep for four or five days if wrapped in a clean plastic bag. Make sure it is wrapped up only after totally cool, or it will go soggy.

Saint Patrick’s Day Thrifting

This past Saturday I spent the day with a good friend of mine down in the Glebe. We started with a Saint Patrick’s Day lunch at Patty’s Pub, where we had great food and conversation while we listened to the live band playing Irish folk music. Then we headed out to 613flea (a great urban flea market) just up the road in the Aberdeen Pavilion in Lansdowne Park. When we finished there, we browsed the Ottawa Antique Market, and then we rounded out our day by perusing a second-hand charity shop. I know it’s not the kind of thing that everyone’s into (heaven knows my husband has no interest whatsoever), but my friend and I had a fabulous time!

Of course, I did return home with a few treasures. I think my favourite one of the bunch is a copy of the 1889 (seventieth edition) printing of the 1877 volume The Home Cook Book, which was compiled by the Ladies of Toronto and Chief Cities and Towns in Canada as a fundraiser for the Sick Kids Hospital. From what I understand, this is the very first Canadian cookbook that was compiled by an organization to be sold in order to raise funds. It’s such a common thing to do these days (especially as it gets easier and easier to self-publish inexpensively) that most of us who like to cook have at least one of these in our collection — and have probably contributed to a few.

I’m really looking forward to diving into this book and trying to recreate some of the recipes. It’s going to be interesting, because the instructions are sparse and often vague as so many old cookbooks often are, since they assume a great deal of previous experience on the part of the reader. The book also refers to culinary techniques, measurements, and ingredients we don’t use any more. I mean, what is a quiet oven? Or a quick oven? Do we even grow Spitzenberg or Greening apples any more in Canada? When they talk about currants, do they mean dried or fresh? How much does a wineglass hold? Or a teacup? I’m going to be doing a lot of Googling, I tell you.

Now, I love the feel and smell of old books, but this is the digital age after all and the book is well out of copyright. It was actually archived online by the University of Toronto and the Toronto Public Library; you can check it out in all its glory here. Or if you’re like me and you don’t want your old books contaminated by kitchen spatter, when you’re cooking you can always pull up the digital version on your phone or tablet.

The fantastic old cookbook wasn’t my only find, though! I picked up an 8×10″ print of Carabara Designs‘ hand-lettered print of the “Do you want ants?” quote from the TV show Archer. I am constantly amazed by my kids’ capability to utterly destroy the kitchen with two pieces of toast, so I’ve been thinking this a lot lately.

The print has pride of place on the side of the cupboard above the kitchen counter peninsula, hopefully where the kids will see it. But kids being kids, they probably won’t even notice. Ah, well. I think it’s perfect, and it even matches the paint job. Now all I need is a coordinating print to go underneath.

Last but not least, I picked up some Fuzzy Navel Jam from Tastes of Temptation. This jam tastes just like summer, which is exactly what I need right about now. Honestly, I liked everything they had on offer, but this was the one that made me smile the most. Spread on a piece of fresh homemade bread, it makes a divine snack with a cup of tea!

Herb-Crusted Fish

Today I was lucky enough to find a copy of Essential Cooking Basics: The New Cook by Mary Berry & Marlena Spieler (1997) for $1.25 at a local charity shop. I’ve just started watching Mary Berry on YouTube, which makes it seem like I’m way behind the curve since she has written more than seventy cookbooks, but honestly she’s not as big of a name here as she is in the UK! I mean, only seven of her books are available in hard copy via Chapters, and in brick-and-mortar stores she’s even harder to spot. It’s a tragedy, actually. My introduction to Mary Berry was via old episodes of The Great British Bake Off where she was the judge.


Preparing the ingredients.

So I was thrilled to find a copy of one of her out-of-print books today. A quick perusal of the recipes within while I waited for the kids to get home made me realize that I had almost all of the ingredients for Herb-Crusted Fish (page 134). (My choice of dinner recipe had absolutely nothing to do with having pulled a muscle in my back when I shoveled the ice berm at the bottom of the driveway the day before, and hence wanting nothing to do with lifting heavy bags of flour or potatoes.) I thought that a quick trip to the grocery store would be all that I needed. Ha! Does it ever work that way? First of all, I couldn’t find bread crumbs that didn’t already have cheese or seasoning mixed in, so I had to go with Panko. Then the store was out of non-frozen haddock (what grocery store runs out of haddock?), so I substituted basa fillets. Then I went on to looks for chervil, which apparently is really hard to get around here, so I bought curly parsley instead, which an Internet search suggested as a reasonable substitution. (The other herbs, tarragon and dill, I already had in the fridge.)


Frying the fish.

I mean, none of that was the recipe’s fault. The book is really intended for a British audience, so it’s not unheard of that some of the ingredients can’t be easily found this side of the pond. I’ve run into this problem with international cookbooks before. It is a frustrating, though.


Herb-crusted basa fillet with sliced avocado and romaine lettuce with Greek dressing.

When all was said and done, I was really happy with the final product. The substitutions worked really well. I mean, I have no idea if it tasted anything like what Mary Berry intended, but it did taste good! The whole family ate theirs and asked me to make it again sometime. The recipe’s instructions were clear and easy to follow, which is exactly what I was looking for in a book with “basics” and “new cook” in the title. The step-by-step photos throughout were great as well. I hope that I’m past the “new cook” stage by now, but it never hurts to brush up. It’s also great to have an illustrated guide when the instructions are from another country, because the terminology sometimes changes. All in all, I look forward to preparing recipes from this book again. I also hope to use it to help my kids learn to cook.

Asparagus, Eggs & French Dressing

I’ve really been enjoying trying out the dishes from the Jamie Oliver 5 Ingredients Quick & Easy Food cookbook (2017). My go-to breakfast for the last week or so has come from this book: Asparagus, Eggs & French Dressing (page 164). The recipe serves two, but it’s easy enough to halve the ingredients to make a single serving for myself. (Hubby is a cereal-for-breakfast kind of guy, and the kids turn up their noses at vegetables for breakfast.)

If you prepare the dressing in advance (the recipe makes enough for a week’s worth of breakfasts for one person), this dish only takes about ten minutes to make. I don’t have a metal colander to put over the eggs in which to steam the asparagus, so I cook it in the microwave using a steamer dish. I also discovered that it takes a little longer than 5 1/2 minutes to make soft-boiled eggs around here; as the above photo attests, my first try was a bit underdone. It’s more like 6 1/2 minutes.

Things I discovered about myself when making this recipe: I’m not a big fan of raw tarragon (it tastes a bit like black licorice to me, which I despise), and I have a limited tolerance for raw red onions in the morning. I just started skipping the tarragon entirely, but I wonder if this dish might be good with a bit of basil instead? And although I like the red onion flavour in the dressing, I had to stop eating it as a garnish. Otherwise, I could taste it on my breath all day, even after brushing my teeth.