Lebanese Food / Wine and Culinary Traditions

Lebanese Food / Wine and Culinary Traditions
Spring time always inspires me...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Mouneh Reviewed in the Art of Eating - The Review

The editor of the Art of Eating, Edward Behr, sent me the review of Mouneh by mail. I hope you will take the time to read it as this text is written by a person that has lived through every detail of the book (inside and out). I enjoyed reading it, it almost brought tears to my eyes. I thank you for taking such care in writing every word. My dream is for my two books to be one day in all US bookshops. It will happen, I know. It's just a matter of time.

Some facts about Edward Behr:

Edward Behr (born 1951) is an American food writer. His books include "The Art of Eating Cookbook: Essential Recipes from the First 25 Years", and The Artful Eater". Behr publishes a quarterly food magazine, The Art of Eating''. From the first modest eight-page issue published in 1986, it has grown to become one of the most respected magazines about food and wine.
Behr’s writing and magazine focus on taste, especially the connection between taste and the place food and wine come from. He has written about many of the best farmers and food artisans in France, Italy, and the United States.
Behr has taught writing at the University of Vermont, served on the first international jury for the Slow Food awards, and speaks internationally on food and culture. He has been featured in publications ranging from The New York Times and The Atlantic to Forbes and The Financial Times. He writes and publishes from the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where he lives with his wife, Kimberly, and two stepsons, Maximillian Buckminster and Zane Buckminster.

What others have to say about the Art of Eating:

    America’s most
    erudite and
    prestigious food

    The Wall Street

 “The must-
    have foodie


“This is what
    the food
    used to be
    all about —
    honesty and
    integrity —
    not hype.”

    Alice Waters  

Preserving Memory
Mouneh: Preserving Foods for the Lebanese Pantry
by Barbara Abdeni Masaad, 591 pages, self-published, hardcover,
$50 from Buylebanese.com plus
$49 shipping to US (2010).

Before the first agricultural civilizations began to store grain, preserved foods were already vital to the human diet, perhaps nowhere more so than in the Middle East, where many preservation methods are believed to have originated. The Arabic word mouneh means “stored foods,” from pickles to meats, cheeses, and grains, and Barbara Abdeni Massaad’s Mouneh: Preserving Foods for the Lebanese Pantry is a comprehensive handbook of the Lebanese traditions of drying, fermenting, pickling in vinegar, distilling, as well as canning and freezing, with even beekeeping and soap-making. The techniques are simple ones that she extensively researched, painstakingly recorded, and presents here in the form of modern recipes. Today, relatively few Lebanese rely on home preserved foods as staples, but women still get together to “do mouneh.” For them, it is connected to the way they regard food in general: they eat what is local and often homegrown, waste as little as possible, and insist that food be handled, prepared, and kept with the utmost care and respect.

When I married into a Lebanese family, I didn’t realize how deeply that would affect my own approach to cooking and food. In Lebanon there is a right way to do everything and any other way is... well, wrong. I was taught that when you make yogurt you should scald the milk and then allow it to cool until it’s just bearable to hold your little finger in the milk for a ten-count; relying on a thermometer would be unthinkable. I once watched a group of women break into a full-scale fight over how finely spinach should be chopped and with what knife. These details used to seem inane to me, but now I understand that they are the carefully guarded secrets of generations and compose the soul of Lebanese cooking. Without them you may make a perfectly acceptable dish, but you will likely sense, if ever so slightly, that something is missing. For example, tabbouleh, the salad of finely chopped parsley and bulgur wheat, is now commonly made with a food processor, which pulverizes the parsley and causes it to overpower the other flavors. It is still tabbouleh, but it does not have the delicate texture of the same muted flavor as the tabbouleh made in the traditional way, where parsley sprigs are meticulously cleaned, stacked in tidy bunches, and chopped uniformly with unwavering precision and care.

A strength of Massaad’s book is her inclusion of these traditional techniques. The recipe for drying grapes calls for 250 grams of “ashes (oak,lemon or olive tree)”; they are mixed with water to create lye that is

sprinkled over the drying grapes using “an olive branch or a branch of Tayoun (Inula viscosa),” a strong-smelling bush known for having medicinal properties. In the recipe for Plum Roll Ups, made from a dried sheet of sugar and plum paste, the directions say, “Leave in the hot sun to dry for 3 to 5 days, depending on weather conditions.” Though Massaad mentions dehydrators, solar panels,and conventional ovens in the general section on dried fruits and vegetables, she gives only the traditional methods. But in recipes for syrup and molasses that require fruits to be ground, she provides modern methods and shortcuts — a few of which mercifully involve a food processor instead of arduous kneading, grating, or hand grinding. Massaad doesn’t only catalogue traditional recipes in her book, she also tells the story of how local food and traditional production methods unite people from diverse religious, social, and economic backgrounds,which have

in recent history violently divided Lebanon. She describes Abu Kassem, a poor farmer from southern Lebanon, who replaced his tobacco fields with thyme for the production of the herb mixture za’atar and gained financial independence. And through the farmers’ market network, for the first time in his life he interacted with other religious and social groups. ­Massaad observes about two families, one conservative Muslim and the other Christian, both of which produce the local cheese darfieh: “this Shi’a family had merged both physically and mentally with their Maronite employers. They were living in perfect harmony.” 

Born in Lebanon, Massaad immigrated to the United States as a child and grew up helping her father in his Lebanese restaurant. She returned to Lebanon as an adult and apprenticed with French, Italian, and Lebanese chefs, and then she turned her attention to the food of Lebanon and wrote her first book, the award-winning Man’oushé: Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery. As one of the founding members of Slow Food Beirut and an advocate of preserving food traditions, she helped to establish the Souk El Tayeb, the popular farmers’ market in Beirut. There, culinary diplomacy rules over the country’s usual factionalization. The market has become an important feature in the contemporary map of Lebanese cuisine, and Massaad used it to the fullest in her research for Mouneh, interviewing and photographing market producers and cajoling them to reveal age-old family recipes and nearly forgotten techniques. She also gleaned some modern recipes, such as grape leaves stuffed with labneh, dried yogurt cheese, preserved in oil, and watermelon jam.

The book connects recipes with their origins — the families that passed them from generation to generation, refining them with time and experience. Take the obscure recipe for Poor Man’s Cheese. Out of context it would have seemed inaccessible to me, but with the author’s clear, simple instructionsand the story of Mona and Nelly, two farmers’ market producers who have“gone to great lengths to safeguard this ancient recipe,” I confidently set out to ferment one kilo of bulgur wheat into a mysterious dairyless “cheese.” I just filled a container with water and bulgur, sealed it, and covered it with a towel. I did look for guidance over the next week as the bulgur took on a strange smell and consistency, but even the savviest old Lebanese ladies I could find only smiled with appreciation when I mentioned kishk el khameer and could at best recall a time when their grandmothers may have made it. After a week of kneading the dubious mixture every other day, I was relieved to find it smelled pleasant and cheesy. I seasoned it according to the recipe with red pepper paste and nigella seeds and rolled it into balls. It was a success (except perhaps that the red pepper paste made the balls too soft and some became misshapen in their jars). The taste was surprisingly light and tangy, similar to a fermented nut cheese.

The book is organized by month, to “emphasize the use of nature’s gifts at the peak of their ripeness,” beginning with spring, and to serve as a reminder of the time-honored, annual schedule of food preservation.

Searching for a particular recipe can be difficult — the index is meager —and much of the book’s vital information is distributed randomly. In the April chapter, hidden between a recipe for pickled sea fennel and the entry on strawberries, are the instructions for processing jams, jellies, and syrups, which contain important, basic canning information, such as how to sterilize and prepare jars.

The intended audience for the book may seem unclear. The author introduces many of the dishes and ingredients as if to a foreigner, but the lack of a glossary and suggestions that you take your dried chickpeas to be ground at the local mill or that rennet can be easily purchased at the corner pharmacy indicate that she is writing for a Lebanese reader. Mouneh seems especially directed to the many Lebanese who fled during the civil war and settled throughout the world. They eat, speak, and feel Lebanese, and yet they may not read Arabic and may have forgotten what their grandmothers knew. Those unfamiliar with Lebanese cuisine may find some ingredients, such as mastic granules or geranium leaves, strange or difficult to procure or find a substitute for. But ­Massaad’s book is exceedingly detailed in describing methods for choosing ripe produce and in describing certain ingredients, such as the thorny branch akub, or gundelia, a spiny relative of the sunflower usually translated as “thistle,” which can be grilled or pickled. She is equally detailed in explaining techniques, such as how to harvest pine nuts, turn wheat berries into bulgur, or make molasses from carob pods. The photographs on the pages between recipes are more often aesthetic than informational, but they provide context for the food, the land, and the people.

The dozen or so recipes that I made were generally easy to follow and tasted authentic — my dried yogurt, or labneh, balls in oil were the envy of the family table and I was complimented with “’Smallah shoo sit-beit,” meaning, “God bless, what a house-lady.” However, some recipes lacked key information. I would have liked to know the approximate yield for many of the recipes, so that I could have known how many jars to prepare. For the vegetables packed in oil, it was unclear how long they needed to cure to become soft and palatable; I know from experience that stuffed eggplants take at least two weeks, but my artichoke hearts in oil were still crunchy after three weeks. Yet such omissions are minor in such an ambitious work.Massaad does a great service in collecting myriad fundamental recipes and processes together for the first time. For example, the recipe for Basic Pickling Solution can be used to pickle any variety or combination of vegetables. I found that my cucumber pickles tasted a bit salty and flat,something that could be remedied with spice, but the turnips and beets were excellent, crispy, flavorful, and attractive in their jars. I also followed her advice and sealed extra pickling solution in a jar for later use. I appreciated the simple, old-fashioned method for preparing fruit jams, all of which begin with placing the clean, cut-up fruit “in a glass bowl starting and finishing with a layer of sugar. Cover with a clean cloth and leave to stand overnight.” In the morning you find your sugar dissolved and your fruit floating in a pleasant bath of syrup. This mixture is simply boiled with some lemon juice, no pectin added. My apricot jam was perfect, full of flavor.

During the few weeks that I was cooking through the book, I left it lying on my coffee table — it’s eye-catching. Nearly every visitor I had was drawn to it. While most commented on the photographs, cultural narrative, and unique topic, my ­Lebanese visitors, many of them women in their fifties and sixties, were delighted to see in print so many cherished recipes that they had been recreating from memory. More than once I heard: “Yes! You see, here I’ve been doing it wrong!” or “Aha! I’ve been trying to figure this out for years!” Barbara Abdeni ­Massaad has taken the “feeling” that an old Lebanese woman had about a “pinch” of this and a “drop” of that and transformed it into complete, accurate recipes for the supermarket generation.— Michelle Dumitriu Machtoub 

1 comment:

ABSChessBooks said...

Hello! What is the ratio burghul/water for Kishk el khameer? How many burghul? How many water? And how many salt?