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 and cream in a deep pan over medium to low heat.
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. Cook on medium to low heat for approximately 8 minutes; keep stirring. Stop when the mixture thickens.
6. Transfer to a glass bowl to cool before freezing, keeping the whisk handy.
7. Every few minutes give the mixture a stir with the whisk to stop a film from forming on the surface.
8. When the milk mixture is cooler, place it in the ice cream maker and churn until set.
9. 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

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 this momentous 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.

Passatelli Asciutti

I had never thought of passatelli asciutti until last week, when I tasted them in a restaurant up in the Dolomites. I had them served with melted butter, sage, pumpkin and radicchio: a true delicacy, an original alternative to the classic passatelli in brodo, one of my favourite soups from Romagna.

Fusilli Pepe e Zafferano

Fusilli Pepe e Zafferano
Black pepper and saffron pasta sauce

With two spices, a bit of butter and plenty of Parmesan, I created a last minute pasta sauce, full of colour and flavour.
My inspiration was the spaghetti Cacio e pepe, one of the most classical dishes from Rome. The flavour simply comes from cheese (cacio) and black pepper (pepe), but it is the addition of few tablespoons of starchy pasta water that creates the creaminess of the sauce. As I wanted a full creaminess, I cooked my pasta in a small amount of water to keep all its starch.  I chose fusilli, as they are easy to stir, but any other short pasta would have worked.
This is a different way of cooking pasta, which needs care but gives an extraordinary final result.

Risotto Radicchio e Pera

I enjoy playing with risotto and its countless variations. Even the traditional Risotto alla Milanese appears in three different versions in the first Italian cookery book  La scienza della cucina e l'arte di mangiar bene, by Pellegrino Artusi. Let's be inventive with this delicious and versatile dish.

The Libaliano Kitchen turns up in Milan

On Wednesday 19th February 2014, during the glamorous fashion week, Libaliano Kitchen showed up in Milan to present its books on Lentils and Chickpeas.

Kitchen Victim hosted us in their beautiful and cheerful space, where we served up a recipe tasting from our books.

Artichokes and Potatoes

Artichokes and potatoes is a classic combination for a delicate winter side dish. I cook the two ingredients separately, and I only combine them at the end to keep the individual flavours and textures. The fresh rosemary is the perfect binding with its pungent aroma.