Through the grape vine

 

Whats with the puns? I can`t shake it! I think it`s to do with Evening standard Overexposure. Hope I`ll get it out of my system soon, and these pages wo`nt be so painful to read anymore.

The phrase `Overexposure` also comes to mind looking at this picture. I still like it though.  

Everybody tried stuffed vine leaves. Or so they think. I thought I had stuffed vine leaves.In  fact, I even thought I make quite good vine leaves. I learned of my mistake at a food fare in the basement of a shopping mall in Tel Aviv. This guy had a stall there, pots  full of bubbling broths, dumplings and stews, all looking and smelling gorgeous. His mother and Father cooked it all, he boasted,  hand-made and fresh Iraqi food. I saw a Claudia Roden quote somewhere, saying that Persian cuisine is the last undiscovered secret in middle eastern cooking. No disrespect to that great lady, but I think she forgot their neighbours; In Israel, with its huge community of Iraqi jews, their cooking is very highly regarded.

I bought some kibe from this guy, and he was upselling hard. I wasn`t having it, so he gave me these vine leaves to try, and said `you havent tried vine leaves till you tried these` and I had to reluctantly admit, the pushy little man was right, I never had anything even remotely similar; warm and slightly sticky rice, bursting with minty freshness, lemony but not sour, wrapped in soft silky leaves…of course I bought as many as I could, trying to remember every bite so I can recreate them.

And indeed I did – took a lot of trial and error, but I got there finally – I am using risotto rice, for that sticky texture of the grains, cook it slightly with equal amount of chopped onion to rice, season with turmeric, cinnamon, cayenne and ridiculous amounts of mint, fresh and dried. 

After the leaves are rolled they are cooked in lemon juice and olive oil with  leeks and grapes for a couple of hours.

The results are so good I don`t think there is a limit to how many of them I can eat. If they weren’t so time-consuming  to make, I would have it every day, and so would my wife, but these are special affair treats, at least untill the restaurant opens, which seems very near now, I think I am going to close the deal on the location today.


Preserved lemon and mint chicken

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This one is inspired by  one of the best chef I know, a woman called Margaret Tayar who cooks in her restaurant, on a terrace by the  beach in Jaffa.  not a fancy place –  concrete floor, the furniture is old white plastic and the tablecloth is clearly made out of old curtains. She is around 60 I guess. with crazy black locks, beautiful blue eyes and a constant smile that was showing braces last time I was there.If she is not in the kitchen she is sitting at the entrance on a manky wicker chair, bare feet up, vegetables piled up around her that she would prep with her cousin, or sister, who are also the waiting staff. the food she cooks is based on north african traditions ( I think her family are Tunisian or Algerian), but is a thing all of its own – `mediterranian magic` might be a possible title. she is famous for her mezze salads, grilled fish, couscous dishes and her magic touch – some people, very few, have such an instinct for food, an instincts that guides them when they choose ingredients, decide when it is ready to cook, how to cook it and with what, and these are the people whose food you want, time and again, to come back to.

 But it’s not only the food – she is one of the happiest people I know contaigiously happy, and always seconds away from laughing.I never heard her complain about anything (except  the fish monger who tries to rob and cheat her every day for so many decades now) and she would always say that it’s the restaurant that keeps her happy, just making food for people.

I thought about it now, when the idea of a restaurant is actually getting a bit more real, and I am starting to freak out and ask myself if I really want this – the constant anxiety, the  18 hour workdays, miss seeing movies,  friends and wife (in order of importance). If I will become even a bit more like Margaret, I would consider my efforts well spent.  Still Waiting to hear about the property.

Back to business – her preserved lemons are amazing. Rumor has it she gets truckloads of special lemons from the Sinay desert in egypt – tiny and fragrant, and so flavoursome, and she pickles them for the year. She makes this sauce using those lemons, mint and garlic, and serves it with grilled fish, burnt aubergines, roasted peppers. Whatever she puts it on explodes with freshness.

This is my version of it, I hope she would approve. In the restaurant I will use it with boned chicken thighs on the grill, as a marinade and  a sauce ( here I used whole little chickens that I butterflied and roasted). the recipe requires a lot af mint, fresh and dried, garlic, and preserved lemons, which  Normally I’d  preserve myself, but as they take at least a month to cure I sent my wife to the market to get some, and some dried mint. These lemons she got from the portuguese deli on Atlantic road and they were great – it’s a great deli. As for the mint, well when someone comes back from Brixton market with a bag of dried leaves looking like this, you know you are in for a treat, whatever it is.

   

 

When I ate this I was transported to that balcony by beach, and I could almost hear Margaret saying to her cousin – why didn’t you tell me it’s for them? I would have used the good fish! (that really happened once, it’s that kind of place), so I was worried it might be sense memory that make me enjoy this dish so much, but my friend Ben enjoyed it as well, enough to eat with his fingers, which is the biggest complement an Englishman can offer a chef. Than again, maybe it wasnt dried mint after all… Read the rest of this entry »