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.

Golden Berries

A while back, just in time for my annual Halloween party, I was shopping for fruits and veggies from Costco to include on some platters. On a whim, I picked up a box of golden berries, which I honestly thought I’d never seen before. After a little bit of research at home, I discovered that they’re also called “ground cherries” or “husk cherries”, which I’d actually seen at the farmers’ market, and I’d seen the plants at the garden center. Despite the names, they’re not cherries at all; they’re part of the nightshade family, and are more closely related to tomatoes. The berries grow inside of paper husks that strongly resemble Chinese lantern plants. Apparently they’re pretty common to grow (varieties are native throughout the US and Mexico), but aren’t sold commercially here very often, which is why I wasn’t familiar with them.

I discovered that golden berries are a strongly sweet/tart flavour that is really hard to describe, except to say that they are delicious! They have a texture similar to a very meaty tomato, something like a less-juicy Roma. I served them as-is, but later I went back to the store for more and included them sliced in half in salads, and blended into smoothies. When garden planning season rolls around next year, I think I will try to add a few golden berry plants to see how they like my soil. I’ve had good luck with tomatoes and satisfactory harvests of potatoes, but my peppers haven’t fared nearly as well, so who knows how this new nightshade-family plant will fare. I’ve read that they can even be perennials, but sadly that’s for Zone 8 and above; it gets much too cold here in the winter.

What I’d really like to do is make golden berry jam next fall, since I found the fruit’s flavour to be a refreshing change to the usual fare around here. I mean, I could do it with store-bought fruit this year, but at $5.99 for 340g (which might maybe make a single jar), making a batch is a tad out of my budget.

Reader Submission: Beer Bread

Sometimes when I write this blog, I get the impression that I’m the only one who ever reads it. I started writing in order to record recipes and record our family’s traditions of food, and later branched out a bit more into some of my other interests, so I honestly didn’t expect too many people to read. At the very least, my kids can look up how to cook their favourite childhood dishes when they’re grown. But still, somtimes it feels a bit like shouting into the void — until I get a bit of positive reinforcement.

So I have a regular reader, although it’d be too much of a stretch to call her “a fan”, since I’ve literally known her my entire life. I mean, my parents named my middle name after her. She is my brother’s godmother. Even so, I’m thrilled that she’s actually reading my blog — and not only that, she’s trying my recipes! She sent me this picture the other day with a note, “I love your beer bread recipe…” (That’s my Bread Machine Beer Bread Recipe, by the way.) As you can see, her machine makes different-shaped loaves than mine — her pan is kind of tall and skinny — but it turned out great! I couldn’t be more pleased.

So if anyone else cooks a recipe that I’ve shared, please feel free to send me pictures of the end results, ask questions, leave comments, what have you. Let me know what you liked or what you’d change. The more feedback I get, the better I can customize my content, and that helps everyone in the long run.

Happy cooking!

The Beginning of the Autumn Harvest

We’re starting to get a few cool days, and more than a few cool nights, which, in conjunction with the shortening daylight, signals to the garden that it’s time for fruits and veggies to ripen. I’ve had some meager results so far, if you don’t count the tomatoes.

For all of my efforts with gourds, a powdery fungus attacked the leaves of my plants and killed most of them off. I ended up with only one yellow zucchini, no green zucchini, no pumpkin, and only this teeny tiny butternut squash. It’s so cute that I’m seriously considering not eating it at all and carving it up or decorating it as a Hallowe’en decoration.

I did have about ten good-sized pears on my baby pear tree this year, but I didn’t get to them in time and the local squirrels and chipmunks made serious inroads. This is all that was left for me to bring in. The one on the far right developed kind of small and deformed, but it was still healthy inside. These fruits will be (and actually, all except one have already been) eaten raw, generally in packed lunches.

Despite fighting for my potatoes for sunlight, my few beet plants did okay. The roots weren’t much to talk about; I ended up with just enough to fill a single 500mL mason jar if I planned on preserves. However, the greens — which were actually red in this case due to the variety I planted, but at any rate the leaves — are also edible, and actually quite tasty! They’re good in salad, pesto, or stir-fry; basically, they’re tasty in any dish where you’d use lettuce or a similar leafy green. So I’m tolerably satisfied with my yield of beets, especially since I put in so few plants in the first place.

Apple Picking

One of the things that we do as a family is go to a local orchard in the late summer or fall to go apple picking. We used to go every year, but since we moved into our current abode we’ve only gone every second year because our own apple tree in the back yard fruits in alternate years. That trend may not continue because our poor tree is quite sick, much to my chagrin, and may have to be cut down next year. It has been losing leaves progressively through the tree all summer, leaving it almost half barren at the moment. If it comes back even a little next spring, we’ll see what we can do to save it. At any rate, it wouldn’t have been an at-home apple harvest this year anyway, so we went to the orchard.

The orchard that we visit specializes in McIntosh apples, which is the most traditional Canadian apple, and Lobos, which are a McIntosh offspring. These apples are good both for eating raw and for cooking. This means that the kids will be packing the smaller ones in their lunches for weeks, while I’ll be turning the larger ones into butter, pies, crumble, and possibly even caramel apple egg rolls.

The day dawned clear and cool, which is perfect for apple picking. The kids did their best work under the low-hanging branches, some of which were so laden that they permanently touch the ground in spots, or are propped up on stakes.

Thing 1 and Thing 2 had special help from Dad to reach some of the taller branches, although most of the trees were too tall to reach the very top.

Between the four of us we ended up with almost forty pounds of apples in about fifteen minutes! You can’t beat apple picking for speed, in comparison to, say, berry picking, which seems to take forever even with plants that are chock-full of fruit. The rest of the kids’ time was spent climbing over defunct tractors, running through the barn, and playing in the park.

This is my favourite picture of the day: Thing 2 running back to us after an employee told her she could pick an apple to eat straight off the tree, no charge. If only we could all still have so much joy in a single apple!

Bread Machine Malt Bread Recipe

A while ago, when I first started baking bread, I ran across a recipe that called for malt. It’s not a common ingredient around here, and in my search I learned a lot. The first thing you have to know is that “malt” can mean a number of different things:

Barley Malt Syrup: a thick syrup that greatly resembles molasses in appearance, which is extracted from sprouted (malted) barley. (Pictured above.) In Canada, this can be found in specialty or high end food stores like Whole Foods. In England, I’m told that it’s as common as molasses is here, and that children will often sneak spoonfuls of the stuff from the pantry.

Malt Extract Powder: An ingredient often used in home brewing, malt extract powder can be derived from sprouted (malted) barley or wheat. (Light dried wheat malt extract pictured.) This can be procured quite cheaply from home brewery supply stores and brew-your-own small breweries.

Malted Milk: A combination of malted barley, wheat flour, and evaporated whole milk, this is the main ingredient that differentiates a “malted” from a “milkshake”. (Not pictured.)

While all of these are all derived, at least in part, from the same process, they are all distinct ingredients in their own right and it will greatly change the outcome of a recipe if you use the wrong one. The problem is that a number of recipes I’ve come across (and ingredient lists on packaging, for that matter) sometimes use the blanket term “malt” for any of the three. This becomes increasingly concerning in the case of allergies/food intolerances or trying to eat strictly vegetarian/vegan.

So I learned all of this but still wasn’t able to find a local source for barley malt syrup. Not long later (but after I’d pretty much given up), a friend of mine came across some at a specialty grocery store and picked it up for me. Sadly, I had moved on to non-malt-based recipes by then, and the malt sat in my fridge for quite some time. Skip ahead to last week, when I cleaned out my fridge and realized that my malt was still there — and still good! (I believe it’s like maple syrup in that it’ll last years under ideal conditions.) I put together a bread machine recipe and tested it out a few times, to my family’s happiness. The malt creates a slightly darker loaf and adds a hint of sweetness (but not so much so it’d be called a truly sweet bread).

Side note: This bread can be made vegan, if you use a vegan margarine instead of butter, and use the correct style of malt, which is the barley malt syrup kind, in this case.

Bread Machine Malt Bread
Yields one 2lb loaf

A note about bread machines:
Every bread machine comes with an instruction booklet (most of which are also generally available online) that will specify the order that ingredients should be added. Mine says that liquids should be added first, then flour, then yeast. When preparing this recipe, the instructions for your specific bread machine should take first priority, so if your manual says to add the ingredients in a different order, do so.

Into the bread machine pan, pour:
1 ½ cups water
2 Tbsp barley malt syrup
Over the liquids, pour evenly:
4 cups flour
Into one corner of the pan spoon:
2 Tbsp butter or margarine
Into the other corner of the pan, spoon:
2 tsp salt
Make a divot at the center of the flour. Into the divot, put:
2 tsp yeast

Set the bread machine to the basic/normal/white setting, with a light or medium crust to your preference. Press start. Running this cycle should take about three to four hours, depending on your machine.

Enjoy!

Steak and Bannock

We’ve been having some real problems with power outages in our area lately. It seems like whenever we have a storm or a particularly hot day, the part of the grid that I live in goes down, often for hours. It’s particularly frustrating because a few streets over, who have infrastructure that was put in at the same time as where I live, there won’t even be a glitch.

Such was the case last night when I came home from a grocery run with the kiddos after school. There was a thunder and lightning storm, but there were no issues at the store, so I didn’t think anything of it. Lo and behold, when I returned home we had no power, and apparently we hadn’t for at least an hour. Well, that changed my dinner plans drastically! I’d been planning on making pasta with homemade pesto, but without a burner upon which to boil the water, that was out. (Honestly, I’m starting to think that our next barbecue should be the kind with a burner on the side, since this happens so often.) So I rummaged through the day’s purchases and found something that could easily be cooked on the gas barbecue (I couldn’t use the wood pellet one since the auger is electrically driven).

Luckily I’d picked up a pack of steaks that I’d planned to marinade for the next day’s meal. There was a really good special, and the inch-thick steaks were cheaper by the pound than medium ground beef. So I threw them on the grill with a dusting of Montreal steak spice, and cooked them low and slow (about 300 to 320F) for about an hour, so they’d be done all the way through without burning.

But what to do for a side dish? I had no bread made; I was out of potatoes and corn; rice and pasta were right out because I couldn’t use the stove. But suddenly my Girl Guide training popped into my head: what about bannock? Granted, we’d always made bannock by twisting the dough around a stick and cooking it over the campfire, but traditionally it was made on a griddle or a flat stone. A cast iron pan on a gas barbecue isn’t that much different, right?

It turns out that I was absolutely correct! A perfectly decent bannock can be made this way, and honestly it’s not very difficult. I used the recipe I’d learned years ago from The Golden Book of Camping and Camp Crafts (1959), which was my father’s book before me and was one of my favourite resources for techniques as a Girl Guide. (This recipe just so happens to be vegan/vegetarian so long as you use a vegetable oil such as canola oil as your fat, which I admit wasn’t a huge factor when pairing with steak, but it would have been useful if I’d had a vegan guest.) I preheated my grill to 325F, since I was cooking the steak in there anyway. I basically treated the bannock like a big, slow pancake: cook for 10min or so with the lid closed, open the lid and flip the dough, and then close the lid to cook for another 10min or so. I stayed outside with the bannock and checked on it often because I really wasn’t sure how long it would take — except when it started to rain again. The heat wasn’t terribly consistent, especially with the rain cooling the whole thing down at one point, but it still turned out quite well. Basically, it was just a giant biscuit that I didn’t have to run the oven to make — which makes me think I’ll be making it on future hot days where I don’t want to have to cook indoors.

The steak was done to perfection, by the way. It was melt-in-your mouth. Not too shabby for an improvised meal cooked without electricity!