Aubergine and Tomato Soup

Soups are my favourite dish, the comfort food which best inspires my creativity. I could live on soup and I cook one almost everyday.

Today I propose a summer soup, with both baked and sautéed vegetables. It is a combination of different textures, full of Mediterranean summer flavours. As a final touch, I add chickpeas and fresh basil.

Aubergine and Tomato Soup

1 aubergine, approx. 300 g
500 g ripe tomatoes
3 garlic cloves, halved
1 tablespoon oregano
1 large red onion, peeled and finely sliced
400 ml vegetable stock
1 bay leaf, torn
150 g cooked chickpeas
A generous handful of fresh basil leaves, torn
Sea salt and black pepper
Extra virgin oil

Serves 4
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 50 minutes

  1. Preheat the oven to 170 C.
  2. Line a baking tray with parchment.
  3. Halve the aubergine, sprinkle with salt and oregano and drizzle with oil. Arrange it on the tray, cut side down, and with a sharp knife, make a few cuts on the skin.
  4. Halve the tomatoes, place them on the same tray, sprinkle with oregano and salt and drizzle with oil. Add the garlic.
  5. Bake the vegetables for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
  6. In the meantime, in a pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil and sauté the onion with a pinch of salt on low heat for 10 minutes, covered. 
  7. Skin the aubergine and roughly chop it along with the tomatoes. Stir the vegetables, garlic included,  into the onion and sauté for 1 minute. Pour in the stock, add the bay leaf and leave to a simmer for 15 minutes, lid on.
  8. With a hand blender, blend the vegetables into a coarse puree. Combine the chickpeas and cook for another 5 minutes. Adjust the seasoning.
  9. Add basil, drizzle with oil and leave to cool. 
  10. Serve warm.

Sweetheart Cabbage and Tuna Salad

The sweetheart cabbage is a beautiful vegetable, which enhances our winter table with its fresh and delicate green.  It is so sweet and tender that we like to serve it raw, finely shredded and simply dressed with lemon, extra virgin oil and a touch of mustard.

When combined with few Mediterranean ingredients such as tuna, anchovies, black olive, capers and parsley, the sweetheart cabbage becomes a hearty salad.  We serve it either for lunch or as a light supper.

Sweetheart Cabbage and Tuna Salad 

1 medium sweetheart cabbage, 400 g
160 g tuna in oil
6 anchovies in oil, chopped
1 teaspoon capers in salt, roughly washed 
10 black olives, pitted
The fresh juice of half lemon
A good handful of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
3 tablespoons extra virgin oil
1 teaspoon mustard
Sea salt and black pepper

Serves 4
Preparation time 15 minutes

  1. Tear off and discard the outer leaves of the cabbage. Halve it and remove the core. With a sharp and heavy knife, finely shred the halves crosswise. Arrange it in a large bowl.
  2. Drain the tuna and flake it with a fork. Add it to the cabbage.
  3. Stir in anchovies, capers and olives. Sprinkle with parsley.
  4. In a small cup make your vinaigrette by mixing together salt, pepper, lemon, mustard and oil. Tatse and adjust the lemon and the mustard.
  5. Dress your salad at the very last moment and arrange it in a serving dish.

Dried Fruit Tartlets - Mince pies with a Mediterranean Flavour

Happy Christmas!

There are things that I never thought I’d miss in London until I decided to move to Boston: the large pile of Sunday papers that we read throughout the week; the long chats with neighbours who never step into the house regardless of my many insistent ahla w sahla; Tony my window cleaner, and the furtive glances of people on the tube. I will also miss the festive streets, which become suddenly quiet over the two days of Christmas, as I will miss the fuss over mince pies, the little buttery crusts filled with mincemeat, a fruit and spice mix which are traditionally served at Christmas but now seem to appear on supermarket shelves earlier and earlier in the year.

I had a taste of my first mince pie in 1976, between two skips of the ‘hoky coky’, at a Christmas party in the student hall. I was uneasy eating a sweet pastry with meat, despite the fact that at home we often garnished our minced meat pilau with sultanas and flavoured it with fragrant spices such as allspice, nutmeg, clove and cinnamon. As soon as I bit into it I realised that there was no meat at all. It took me a while to fully savour their sweet spicy flavour.
Why are they called mince pies? The fact is that 17th century recipes list minced mutton and beef suet as ingredients mixed with raisins, orange rind and spices; sugar was only introduced and in the 18th century.
(More on the history of mince pies in  ‘Sweet delight: a brief historyof mince pie”.)

Throughout the years I have learned not only to love a mince pie but also to include it in my Christmas menu, often as a sense of belonging and a token of affiliation to my adopted home. I am now in Lebanon getting ready to celebrate Christmas; usually I would skip mince pies in favour of Lebanese sweets, but this year I decided bake some and give the filling a Mediterranean twist.

Dried fruit tartlets

For the pastry:
300 g plain white flour
150 g butter
80 g icing sugar
2 egg yolks

1.    Cut butter and sugar together in short pulses in a food processor.
2.    Combine one egg yolk at a time.
3.    Incorporate the flour and process until it all comes together as soft dough.
4.    Shape it in a ball and wrap it in a plastic film. 
5.    Refrigerate for one hour.
6.    Dust a rolling pin with flour and roll out the dough until very thin, about 2 mm.
7.    Cut out into rounds and place them delicately in a mini pie tin.
8.    Roll out again to cut star shapes.
9.    Fill each tartlet with a teaspoon of fruit mix, top with a star and bake in a pre-heated oven at 180 C for 15 minutes.

For the fruit and spice mix:
50 g dried figs, chopped
160 g currants
100 g cranberries
250 g raisins
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 small apple grated
50 ml eau de vie
The grated zest of 2 mandarins
300 g butter

1.    Mix all the ingredients except for the butter and leave to macerate in alcohol for a couple of hours.
2.    Gently melt the butter on low heat
3.    Add the spices and incorporate the butter.
Mix and transfer to jar and leave in the fridge until ready to use.

Radicchio and Mozzarella Tart

Radicchio is an Italian winter salad, which comes in different shapes.
The three  most popular ones (all from the North Eastern of the country) are named after the place they were originally grown. The Radicchio di Chioggia is round, like a head of cabbage in shape, and with dark red leaves. The long Radicchio  di Treviso come in two varieties: the Precoce (the first in the season) is a compact bunch of long fleshy leaves, whereas the Tardivo had splayed leaves and tough crunchy ribs.

We love them all, we buy what we find in the market (mainly the round one) and we cook them in different dishes such as risotto, ravioli, polenta and tarts.

Here we like to pair radicchio with the sweet red onion, which balances the bitterness of this beautiful salad and enhances its warm and deep red.
We add the mozzarella at the end to keep its full flavour and delicate consistence.

Radicchio and Mozzarella Tart 

Pâte brisée (short crust pastry):
200 g white flour
1 tespoon sea salt
100 g cold butter, diced
20-30  ml iced water


30 g raisin
1 large red onion, finely sliced
500 g radicchio, trimmed and finely chopped
1 tespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons homemade breadcrumps
200 g ricotta
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
1 mozzarella, diced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Sea salt and black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil

Serves 6
Preparation time:  70 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes

1.    Place the flour and the salt into a food processor and pulse to combine.
2.    Add half of the butter cubes (the colder the better) and pulse 4 to 6 times. Then add the remaining butter and pulse few times until you get a coarse mixture.
3.    Add 10 ml of ice cold water to the food processor and pulse a couple of times. Then add more water slowly, 1 tablespoon at a time, pulsing after each addition, until the mixture just starts clumping together.
4.    Place the mixture on a smooth surface and quickly knead it to just bring the dough together. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for 1 hour.

5.    Meanwhile, make your filling. Soak the raisin in tepid water for 10 minutes. Drain, pat dry and set aside.
6.    In a frying pan heat 1 tablespoon of oil and sauté the onions with a pinch of salt on low heat for 5 minutes. Add radicchio and cook on low heat for another 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Season with thyme and salt and leave to cool.
7.    Preheat the oven to 180°C.
8.    In a large bowl, place the radicchio mixture and incorporate raisins, ricotta and Parmesan. Mix with a fork to combine.
9.    Place the refrigerated dough on a smooth and floured surface and roll it out to a 40 cm rough circle, larger than your tin.
10.Arrange the disk on a 24 cm tart tin. Gently press down the dough over the bottom of the tin and leave the extra pastry over the borders.
11.Sprinkle the dough with breadcrumbs and arrange the radicchio and ricotta mixture on top. Roughly wrap radicchio with the extra pastry.
12. Bake for 40 minutes.
13. Dice the mozzarella and season with salt and oregano.
14. Remove the tart from the oven and cover with mozzarella.
15.Serve at once.

Pappardelle with pumpkin and radicchio sauce

The pumpkin season cheers up our winter dishes. With its bright colour and its delicate taste, pumpkin could enhance our soups, pasta, risotto, tarts, salads, side dishes and puddings. What a versatile  ingredient!

Today we pair the sweetness of the bright pumpkin with the bitterness of the purple radicchio. Both ingredients belong to the traditional Italian cuisine of the North, but we combine them in a new way: we add red onion and raisin to intensify the mild taste of pumpkin and soften the crunchiness of radicchio. Fresh thyme is the perfect seasoning.

Pappardelle with pumpkin and radicchio sauce

250 g egg pappardelle
100 g pumpkin, skinned
25 g raisin
2 large red onions, finely sliced
500 g radicchio
A sprig of fresh thyme
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated Parmesan to serve

Serves 4
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 C.
  2. Slice the pumpkin and arrange it on an oven tray. Sprinkle with salt and bake for 15 minutes, until tender. Peel and dice it.
  3. In a bowl, soak the raisin in tepid water for 15 minutes. Drain and pat dry.
  4. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon of oil and sauté the onions on low heat with a pinch of salt for 10 minutes, until translucent.
  5. Finely chop the radicchio and add to the onions. Cook for 10 minutes on low heat, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper.
  6. Add the pumpkin and the thyme to radicchio and onion mixture and keep warm.
  7. In a pan, bring plenty of water to the boil. Add salt and cook pappardelle as directed (from 5 to 7 minutes). Reserve 1 ladleful of cooking water and drain.
  8. Add pappardelle and the reserved water to the radicchio mixture. Drizzle with oil and toss to combine.
  9. Serve at once with a sprinkle of Parmesan, if you like.

Porcini and Aubergines

What a great excitement finding porcini mushrooms in the wood is! My favourite are the small firm ones, with their brown caps standing out from the undergrowth. Picking porcini mushroom is a joy both for my eyes and my palate.

The porcini’s abundance this season has been a delightful inspiration for my cooking. I enjoyed preparing various classical dishes with plenty of porcini, such as homemade tagliatelle, ravioli, risotto, polenta, and scrambled eggs. However, I also became adventurous by exploring unusual combinations to enhance the flavour of such a noble mushroom.

Porcini mushrooms and aubergines make a perfect couple. Both ingredients have a delicate taste and texture and become complementary once together: the mushrooms bring a touch of wildness to the aubergines’ sweetness.

Aubergine Ravioli with Fresh Porcini Sauce

Make this sauce when porcini are so fresh that all they need is salt, olive oil, garlic and rosemary.

For the pasta
200 g white flour, preferably 00
2 large eggs
A pinch of salt

For the filling
2 medium aubergines
100 g ricotta
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, finely chopped
Sea salt
1 beaten egg

For the sauce
600 g fresh porcini mushroom, cleaned and sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
A sprig of rosemary
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly grated Parmesan to serve

Serves 4 to 5
Preparation time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 60 minutes

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
  2. Arrange the aubergines on an oven tray and with a sharp knife make few cuts on the flesh. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until tender. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
  3. Peel the aubergines, arrange the flesh in a bowl and mash it with a fork. Mix in the ricotta, the yolk and season with salt, rosemary and nutmeg. Set aside.
1.     Place flour, salt and eggs into the food processor (use the plastic blades, if you have them) and pulse until you get coarse dough.
2.     Knead the dough for 3 minutes, until it becomes smooth and elastic.
3.     Wrap the dough with the cling film and leave it to rest for 20 minutes in the fridge.
4.     Put a small piece of the dough into a pasta machine and roll it out on the second to the thinnest setting. It is best to use each sheet as soon as it is ready, before starting to use the rest of your dough.
5.     Fold the the strip of pasta in half lengthways to make a crease down the center. Unfold. Using the crease as a guide, brush one half with beaten egg, then place a teaspoonful of the filling at 3 to 4 cm intervals in 1 row along the side of the crease. 

6. Fold the other half of the pasta over the top. With your fingertips, press gently around each mound of filling to seal the dough and to push out any pockets of air. Cut into squares with a pastry wheel.

7.     Place the ravioli on a clean tea towel, making sure they do not touch. The ravioli are now ready to be cooked. Alternatively, leave to dry on the tea towels, turning over occasionally, until the dough has dried out completely.

Mushroom sauce
  1. With a damp cloth, wipe the porcini mushrooms, and scrape the impurities with a paring knife. Cut them right through the middle, and slice them lengthways.
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the garlic on medium heat, for 1 minute.
  3. Season the porcini with a sprinkle of salt, and toss for 2 minutes on medium heat. Reduce the heat, and continue sautéing the porcini, stirring frequently until they are tender to the bite, 3 minutes.
  4. Stir in the rosemary, and adjust the seasoning.
  5.  Cook the ravioli in simmering salted water, for 4-5 minutes. To drain, scoop out with a slotted spoon and shake of excess of water.
  6. Place in a warmed serving dish, drizzle with oil and toss gently to coat with the porcini sauce.
  7. Serve at once with a sprinkle of Parmesan.

Mastic and Rose Water Ice Cream with Pistachios- Bouza Ashta

'Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favourite things…'

For no particular reason, I have been silently singing this tune for a whole day.
I c a n n o t get rid of it.
It’s annoying; it’s a bit like a fly you try to shoo away, but comes back buzzing next to your ear. ‘these are a few of my favourite things
Brown paper packages tied up with string’?
Come to think of it, I do like the thought of presents, although not many come with string and brown paper packaging nowadays.
What about 'whiskers on kittens', how do I feel about those? Frankly I do not see why I should get excited about kittens’ whiskers at all, although a tiny playful cat is definitely on my list of favourites.
'Bright copper kettles' are beautiful, but oh gosh, so impractical! 'Raindrops on roses' are cliché, and 'warm woollen mittens' can be itchy, so, what are my few favourite things?

If I were to compile my own list and I would spare you the singing, I would start with Bouzet Ashta - Arabic ice cream with mastic.
When summer begins in Beirut, ice cream fridges pop up onto pavements, displaying assortments of ice creams and sorbets. Pistachio, apricot, rose water, melon and mulberry are but a few of the many flavours. My very favourite, is bouzet ashta, a milky ice cream made with mastic or miske and topped with pistachio.
Before the unrest in Syria, whenever we went to Damascus, we went to Bakdash, an institution of a shop, which served the best pistachio coated ice cream. Bakdash, which fed generations of Damascenes, makes its ice cream with salep – sahlab - and mastic, to give it an elastic texture and flavour it with rose water. Whenever you entered the shop, there were rows of men beating the ice cream with a wooden mortar while someone else was shaping the compact mixture and coating it with pistachios.
In his book Saha, Greg Malouf reports that one of the ice cream makers told him that 'Bakdash pounds its way through ten tonnes of ice cream every week' and that 'in the old days' they had to bring ice from the mountain, to cool the ice cream.  This gives me visions of truck loads of ice being deposited on the souk's pavement, while people milled about taking the sight for granted.

Flavouring the ice cream with mastic gives it a particularly fragrant taste.  A resin, which comes from the mastic tree or Pistacia lentiscus, mastic seeps through the tree bark and coagulates into drops, which are then collected. These are also known as the ‘tears of Chios’ because the shrub is cultivated on the Aegean island of Chios.
Mastic has been around for thousands of years; Herodotus chewed it; it appeared in De Materia Medica where it was believed to have therapeutic properties and the Ottomans used it in cosmetics. In Lebanon, people believe that it clears the breath and helps with digestion; in the kitchen it is used to flavour sweet and savoury dishes.
Mastic flavour is strong; it's a bit like biting into a pine tree. You have to be careful with the amount you use; a few ‘tears’ are enough.

Bouzet Ashta
Mastic ice cream

This home made ice cream is in fond memory of a happier more peaceful Damascus.

500 whole milk
100g double cream
100 g sugar
3 tablespoons corn flour
3 mastic pearls
1 tablespoon rose water
3 tablespoons pistachios, chopped

Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 8 minutes
Serves 4

1. Place milk, cream and sugar in a deep pan over medium to low heat, stir to dilute.
2. To pulverise the mastic: freeze it for 15 minutes add a 1/4 teaspoon sugar and then crush it with the mo in a circular motion until the mixture looks like fine sand.
3. Add to the milk and cream mixture.
4. Have a balloon whisk ready; just before milk comes to a boil, add corn flour, while stirring vigorously with the whisk, to prevent lumps from forming.
5. Add rose water and stir.
6. Cook on medium to low heat for approximately 8 minutes; keep stirring. Stop when the mixture thickens.
7. Transfer to a glass bowl to cool before freezing, keeping the whisk handy.
8. Every few minutes give the mixture a stir with the whisk to stop a film from forming on the surface.
9. When the milk mixture is cooler, place it in the ice cream maker and churn until set.
10. Transfer to the freezer for half and hour before serving with chopped pistachios.

Chocolate and Parmesan Cake

A salty chocolate truffle is almost impossible to resist. The combination of contrasting flavours molds an intriguing taste where opposites, salty and sweet, become complementary.
Last week I decided to invent my own salty chocolate cake.  What a challenge!

Inspirations from the Markets

What a gastronomic adventure strolling around the street markets is. The vegetable and fruit stalls define the regional cuisines, outline the change of the seasons and inspire new recipes.

Torta Pasqualina

Torta Pasqualina, the popular pie from Genoa, is traditionally served on Easter day as an appetiser. Usually prepared with several layers of homemade thin sheets of pastry – sort of phyllo -, the pie is stuffed with vegetables, ricotta, Parmesan, marjoram and eggs. The Swiss chard is the main ingredient but you can find different versions of the dish with both chard and artichokes or with only artichokes. Each family has its own recipe in Genoa. A true inspiration.

Chickpea Fatte / Fattet Hummos

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a lady called Catherine, telling me that she bought both Lentils and Chickpeas, cooked many of the recipes and was pleased with the result. She also kindly offered to share her own chickpea tips, which help make them more digestible. I followed her instructions and found them useful.
Here is what she said:  (obviously she bought the French version):

'1. On peut les amener à ébullition quelques minutes dans leur 2e eau de trempage, puis écumer, les égoutter, les rincer, et les remettre à cuire définitivement dans une 2e eau salée.
2. J'ajoute un petit morceau d'algue kombu (3 cm environ) à la 2e eau de cuisson, en plus du sel. C'est une algue qu'on utilise en cuisine japonaise (pour la soupe miso par exemple). Elle ne donne pas de goût aux pois chiches mais apporte des minéraux et est réputée pour les rendre plus digestes.'

This is roughly what it means:

Stuffed vine Leaves or Mehshe Warak Inab

Warak Inab and Lamb cutlets
Food has it's own unsuspecting language; we use it everyday not only to nourish but also to bring people together, to express affection and to break barriers. When my Lebanese cousin married his Italian girlfriend, he took the Libaliano concept to an extreme.   To celebrate love and a happy event, I hosted a lunch for family and friends. It was on the first day of spring and the weather promised sunshine and the option to sit out in the garden.

We started the celebrations with champagne and nibbles. I made pastry triangles filled with spinach and pine nuts - fatayer, which I served warm next to, minced meat and pine nut pastries or lahm bi ajeen. Later we ate rakakat bi jebne- crisp filo cheese rolls and - my favourite- pumpkin kibbe- plump little rolls made with burghol and pumpkin, stuffed with Swiss chard and walnuts.