Chickpea and Pumpkin Stew

In autumn, along the roads of the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, street sellers stack hundreds of pumpkins of all colours and sizes under make shift tents.
With no Halloween tradition, the Lebanese pumpkin is never carved, it serves its natural purpose: to feed and satiate. Inexpensive, filling, and with a long shelf life, it is is a popular ingredient in the regional kitchen.
Steam it and substitute it to meat in a vegan kibbe rich with mellow spices.  For a hearty soup, cream it with chicken stock; if you crave a thick stew, add some beef and a few potatoes and braise it in tomato sauce.

Having moved to the US a few months ago, I experienced Halloween and its fanfare for the first time. Preparations started slowly over the month of October. Shops and homes began displaying haunting decorations or cobwebs, giant spiders, ghosts and grimacing pumpkins. Charmed at the idea of a pumpkin patch, I went to a farm and came back laden different pumpkins, gourds and squashes. I thought I would use them as decorations on my table until it was time to cook them. This was simple, for it happened according to the weather and to my mood. On a cold day I turned them into soup. On a warm day I served kibbe at room temperature and finally last weekend during Halloween night, I made a big and filling stew with chickpeas.

As a cook I find it difficult to dissociate a pumpkin, however radiantly glowing, from food and it got me thinking about the fate of the hundreds and hundreds of that lined the city streets.

Chickpea and Pumpkin Stew

1 leek
2 carrots
2 celery sticks
850 g or 2 cans of cooked chickpeas
600g pumpkin, acorn squash or butternut squash or a mixture of all three ( weight after peeling and trimming)
2 teaspoon cumin
2 teaspoon ground coriander
2 teaspoon smoked paprika
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Sea salt
40 parsley, chopped
To serve
Plain yogurt
1 crushed garlic
Olive oil

  1. Heat olive oil in a deep, heavy based pan and sauté the leeks for 1 minute.
  2. Add the crushed garlic and sauté on medium heat for 1 more minute.
  3. Finally add the carrots and celery which are cut into 1 cm rounds sauté until they begin to change colour; lower the heat, leave to cook 5 minutes.
  4. Add the spices and mix them with vegetables, the heat will release their aromas.
  5. Add the chickpeas and 800 ml vegetable stock or water. Add the saffron strands and bring to a boil, lower the heat; simmer covered for 10 minutes.
  6. Add the pumpkin cubes, mix and leave to simmer for 15 minutes or until tender.
  7. Take two ladlefuls of soup mixture and cream in a blender.
  8. Return to the soup to give it a smooth texture.
  9. Just before serving, stir the chopped parsley in, it will add fresh fragrance to the stew.
  10. Serve plain or with a dollop of garlic yogurt.

Pasta con broccoli alla Siciliana

If you happen to order Pasta con broccoli in Sicily, you will get delicious cauliflower pasta. Do not blame the waiter, he is perfectly right, as in Sicily cauliflower is called broccoli, while the light green broccoli (Romanesco broccoli) are cauliflower and the dark green ones (the traditional broccoli) are ‘sparacelli’. A bit confusing, but the language enhances the independence of this beautiful island.
Whatever you call it, pasta with seasonal vegetables is a popular dish in Italy, with plenty of variations and inspirations. It is the perfect example of cucina povera: inexpensive, traditional, healthy.

The sweet and sour pasta with broccoli (cauliflower) alla Siciliana is made with raisins, pine nuts, anchovies and saffron. I like to prepare it with short pasta, such as maccheroni, but both bucatini and spaghetti would work as well.
Remember to keep the cauliflower al dente and to add the saffron at the very end. You will preserve its full flavour.

Pasta con broccoli alla Siciliana
Cauliflower and Raisin Pasta

350 g maccheroni
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 cauliflower, about 800 g
50 g raisins
50 g pine nuts
6 anchovy fillets in oil
15 g saffron
2 tablespoons extra virgin oil
Sea salt and black pepper
Extra virgin oil

Serves 4
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 35 minutes

  1. Soak the raisins in hot water for 15 minutes. Drain and pat dry. 
  2. In a pan, sauté the pine nuts without any fat for 4 to 5 minutes until just golden, stirring frequently. Transfer to a bowl; do not leave them in the pan, as they would keep on cooking, even off heat. 
  3. In a large frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil and sauté the onion with a pinch of salt on low heat for 10 minutes, until translucent. 
  4. Stir the anchovies into the onions and cook until dissolved, 2 to 3 minutes. 
  5. Divide the cauliflower in florets and boil them in plenty of salted water with a good pinch of salt for 5 minutes. Drain and keep the water for the pasta. 
  6. Add the florets to the onion along with two tablespoons of their cooking water and leave to cook on low heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. 
  7. Dissolve the saffron in 2 tablespoons of hot water and add to the cauliflower sauce. Stir well. 
  8. Cook pasta in the cauliflower water until al dente. Drain, reserving one ladleful of cooking water. 
  9. Add pasta to the cauliflower, stir in half of the cooking water and sauté for 2 minutes on high heat. Sprinkle with pine nuts.
  10. Serve at once, with a drizzle of oil.

Spicy Roasted Cauliflower Florets

"Move over broccoli" here comes cauliflower.
For a number of years now, food articles about this brassica point to the revival of a vegetable often boiled and over-cooked, and discarded as being ordinary, smelly, and uninteresting.
The common cauliflower is white but it can also be orange, green or purple. Each boast different health benefits and all are good to our digestive system and wellbeing. They are low in fat, high in fibres, and possess many vitamins. Raw, you can crunch them as a filling snack; you can also cook them in many delectable ways.
At home in Lebanon, we deep-fried the florets. No batter, just as they were. They came out soft on the inside with crispy bits on the outside. We dipped them hot in a tangy, garlicky tarator sauce.
I have to admit I like this simple variation. However, I try avoiding frying food; on the one hand I do not like the lingering smell in my home, and on the other, it is not so healthy.
In Boston where I am currently living, autumn has set in. The air is crisp and foliage is bright with rusty, golden colours. This makes me want to change my eating habits. I only wish I had a fireplace to roast chestnuts. 
Warm and coloured spices, which I tend to leave on the shelf in summer, are sneaking back into my food. I swathed my florets with a mixture of aromatic and fiery seasonings and roasted them in the oven with a drizzle of olive oil. They came out soft and yet they retained enough crunch to help forget that they were once thought of as soggy and limp. I ate them with a yogurt, garlic and herb based sauce.

Spicy Roasted Cauliflower Florets

1 medium to large cauliflower
½  teaspoon smoked paprika
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon sumac
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
¾ teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt

For the sauce:
400 g plain yogurt
½ garlic clove, crushed
1 teaspoon aleppo pepper
2 tablespoons tahini

Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 35 minutes
Serves: 4 to 5 persons

  1. Wash and trim the cauliflower and pat dry on kitchen paper.
  2. Separate the florets and place them in a deep bowl.
  3. Mix all the spices together in a small bowl and sprinkle them over the cauliflower. Toss the florets into the spice powder until evenly coated.
  4. Transfer them to an oven dish and drizzle about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over them. 
  5. Roast for 35 minutes in a preheated oven at 180°C
  6. While the vegetables are cooking prepare the yogurt sauce.
  7. Using a whisk, mix together tahini and yogurt until smooth and well blended. Mix in the crushed garlic together with 1 teaspoon salt.
  8. Finally, combine the sauce with the chopped parsley. 
  9. Spoon the yogurt in the bottom of a dish and arrange the florets in the middle.

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.