Life Table Talk

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Rachel Allen's bountiful salads from the Middle East

Rachel Allen

Published 22/06/2014 | 00:00

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Rachel Allen's tomato and pomegranate salad. Photo: Tony Gavin
Rachel Allen's tomato and pomegranate salad. Photo: Tony Gavin
Rachel Allen

The Middle East is planted right in the centre of some of the world’s ancient and most developed food cultures. Trade routes and spice roads from Europe to Asia and Africa went through the Middle East for centuries.

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Each had its own influence on the 
food that was eaten there, which combined with the considerable local traditions to create a food culture that is eclectic and full of big, bold flavours.

The food of the Middle East reflects the generosity of its people. Huge great salads with big handfuls of herbs and lashings of lemon juice. It is the perfect food for a summer lunch — substantial salads that are happy to be left out, then served and eaten in the sun.

I’ve recently spent some time in the Middle East, and devoured as much of the local food as I could. Most of the ingredients were familiar. I had few meals without either lamb, aubergines or chickpeas. But there are, of course, more exotic ingredients that make their food unique. Thankfully, in recent years, those ingredients have made it to Ireland.

Sumac is a gorgeous spice. It is 
made from the powdered dried 
berries of the sumac tree, and has 
a divine and distinctive sour taste. It is traditionally used in fattoush, which is this lovely fresh and filling salad.

Tabbouleh is another filling salad, with the substance being bulgur rather than bread. Although, the point of tabbouleh is not the bulgur, but the parsley, which should take over the salad with its greenery. The vegetables and herbs in tabbouleh should be chopped finely, while those in fattoush should be chopped larger and more coarsely.

The lamb dish is one my husband, Isaac, threw together with ingredients from the region. It makes a perfect filling for pitta bread (or a sandwich), especially if you have 
some fresh-cut lettuce, a few tomatoes and some Greek yoghurt.

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Fattoush

(Serves 4)

Ingredients

2 round pitta breads or 1 large oval pitta,

cut into bite-sized chunks

5 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

½ cucumber, cut into 2cm (¾in) chunks

3 tomatoes, cut into 2cm (¾in) chunks

½ red onion, peeled and thinly sliced

1 small red pepper, deseeded and

cut into 2cm (¾in) chunks

2 tablespoons chopped coriander

2 teaspoons sumac (optional)

Finely grated zest and juice of ½ lemon

1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

Pinch of granulated or caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 180°C, 350°F, Gas 4.

 

Method

Toss the pitta bread chunks in  2 tablespoons of the olive oil and  season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Spread them out on a baking sheet and roast them in the oven for 8–10 minutes, or until they’re golden.

Place the the cucumber chunks, the tomato chunks, the sliced red onion, the red pepper chunks, the chopped coriander, the sumac, if you’re using it, the lemon zest and the lemon juice, the crushed garlic, the red wine vinegar and the granulated or caster sugar, whichever you are using, in a bowl.

Add the roasted pitta pieces, then mix everything together, seasoning to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper and another pinch of sugar,  if necessary.

 

Lamb with raisins  and pine nuts

(Serves 4)

 

Ingredients

2 tablespoons sunflower oil

450g (1lb) lamb shoulder or leg meat

with all the fat removed, and cut into

1cm (½in) pieces

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

60g (2oz) toasted pine nuts

2 tablespoons hummus

2 tablespoons raisins

1 tablespoon fresh coriander, chopped

Method

Place a frying pan on a high heat,  then add the sunflower oil and, when it’s hot, toss in the lamb pieces. 

Season with the salt and freshly ground black pepper, then add the ground cumin and the ground coriander.

Stir together, then cook over a high heat for 4 or 5 minutes.

Add the toasted pine nuts, the hummus, the raisins and the chopped fresh coriander. Stir to mix  and let it simmer for one minute. Taste for seasoning, then serve.

 

Tabbouleh

(Serves 6)

Ingredients

125g (4½oz) bulgur wheat

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

The juice of 1 lemon

3 medium tomatoes, finely diced

1 medium cucumber, peeled and finely diced

2 spring onions, sliced

1 clove garlic, crushed or finely grated

2 handfuls of parsley, chopped

Small handful of mint leaves, chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

Method

Place the bulgur wheat in a medium bowl and cover it with cold water. 

Soak for about 15 minutes, then tip  into a strainer and press out as much liquid as possible.  In a large bowl, mix the extra-virgin olive oil and the lemon juice to make a dressing.

Next, add the finely diced tomatoes, the finely diced cucumber, the sliced spring onions, the crushed or finely grated garlic, whichever you’re using, the chopped parsley and the chopped mint leaves, along with the soaked bulgur.

Season to taste with the salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve within a few hours.

 

Tomato and  pomegranate salad

(Serves 4)

app rachel salad.jpg

Ingredients

6 tomatoes, cut in chunks

1 pomegranate, seeds only

1 teaspoon ground sumac

1 teaspoon freshly toasted and ground cumin

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

 

Method

Mix the tomato chunks and the pomegranate seeds in a bowl, see my Tip, above left.

In a separate bowl, mix together the ground sumac, the toasted ground cumin, the olive oil and the pomegranate molasses, then drizzle this  over the tomato-and-seeds mixture.

Put on a large serving plate and serve.  

 

RACHEL’S TIP

To quickly deseed a pomegranate, cut it in half, then hold the half in the palm of your hand, cut side down, over a large bowl. Using the back of a wooden spoon, hit the outside of the pomegranate — the seeds will fall through your fingers into the bowl 

 

RACHEL RECOMMENDS

Pomegranate molasses is such a great ingredient. It’s a thick syrup that is at once both sweet and sour. It is made by boiling down the juices of a special variety of pomegranate to make a relatively viscous syrup. I like to drizzle some over hummus or baba ganoush. If you’re making a salad dressing, try replacing the vinegar with pomegranate molasses. It’s still acidic, but I think the extra element of sweetness works wonderfully. It’s also good as a quick and handy sauce — just deglaze the pan you’re cooking with, using the pomegranate molasses and a splash of wine. That lovely sourness really cuts through rich meats, such as duck or pork. Pomegranate molasses is available from Middle Eastern grocers, as well as specialist food shops and some supermarkets.

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