If you spend even a small amount of time eating food from the countries that border the Mediterranean you will realize how much they all have in common. Greece and Italy love their freshly caught fish with a simple but dazzling splash of pure olive oil and lemon, and delight in their warm and bubbly baked pastas and their delicious salty cheeses. And yet unlike Italy, Greece shares its love of hummus and heavily seasoned meat with its middle eastern neighbours. Of course this phenomenon is not surprising at all when you read about the occupations and migrations of different people groups in the Mediterranean throughout ancient history.
We have a couple of decent Greek/Middle Eastern restaurants around Waco but there are a few menu items I haven’t seen anywhere and have dearly missed so I decided this weekend was a good time for some nostalgic cooking! The first dish I made is called Lahmacun (pronounced Lah-ma-joun) and is typically an Armenian and Turkish dish although each culture serves it slightly differently by adding a unique variety of pickled or grilled vegetables. It’s a meat (usually lamb or beef, or both) mixed with spices and parsley and then grilled/baked on flat-bread This recipe came to my family from an Armenian woman and Mum used to make it for us when we were kids.
The second item I have been missing is originally a Syrian dip called Muhammara (affectionately known to my friends as ‘The Red Dip’) with roasted red peppers, toasted walnuts and pomegranate molasses. We first discovered this when my husband and I lived in Cyprus and visited an amazing restaurant called Syrian Friendship Club. Although the ingredients sound like a strange combination, when I first took a bite, I could not place a single one and was completely baffled. It just tasted delicious and I had no way of figuring out how it was made. When we left Cyprus, a tiny piece of my heart stayed behind in that restaurant with the bright red bowl of heaven! Then, unexpectedly while looking through an Ellie Kreiger cookbook, I came across a recipe for Muhammara and could not contain my excitement. I made a couple of adjustments and was delighted that in some small way, we could relive our Syrian Friendship Club days thousands of miles away. I hope you will try these very simple but delicious recipes and experience the delights of the Middle East in your own kitchens
1/2 lb of ground beef
1/2 can of crushed tomatoes
1/2 tbsp of tomato paste/puree
Handful of chopped fresh parsley
1/2 tsp of cumin
1/2 tsp of all spice (or just mix ground cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves)
1/2 tsp of ground coriander
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
6 pitta pockets (you can also use large thin flat-bread)
fresh lemon wedges or juice for serving
I like to blend the crushed tomatoes but this is not completely necessary. Mix all the ingredients (minus the bread) in a large bowl and refrigerate overnight. Turn on your broiler (or oven grill) to get nice and hot. Slice open and separate the pitta pockets so you have two thin rounds. Spread a THIN layer of the meat mixture onto each side of the pitta. The surface of the bread should be completely covered. Place under the broiler for about 5 minutes or until the edges are crunchy but not burnt. Repeat with remaining pitta pockets and squirt some fresh lemon juice over top before serving.
Muhammara (adapted from Ellie Kreiger’s The Food You Crave)
1/2 cups of wholewheat bread crumbs
1 1/2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp of cumin
1/2 tsp of cayenne pepper (optional)
1/2 cup walnuts
1 tbsp lemon juice
18 oz jar of Roasted Red Peppers (drained)
2 tbsp of pomegranate molasses *(see note below)
(*Pomegranate molasses can be found at any middle eastern specialty store but in the event you don’t have one near you, simmer some pomegranate juice on medium heat until it reduces to a syrup- about 1/4 of the volume -and allow to cool. It can last in your fridge for a few weeks if you have extra.)
Toast the walnuts and grind in food processor. Add breadcrumbs and spices and pulse until well combined. (If I don’t have breadcrumbs, I toast a small piece of bread, let it cool and harden and then throw it in with the walnuts.) Add drained peppers, lemon juice, molasses and olive oil and blend until everything is mixed well. Serve with Pitta Chips or warm flat bread.