November 2012

Charlotte Freeman


The Mediterranean of Montana

We buy a whole pig every year, and on the odd year, like this one when I can convince my sweetheart to splurge, we also buy a lamb. Because we live in the middle of ranching country, this is all perfectly normal -- our local packing house runs a pig special every year after the county fair, so what we get are the 4H pigs that didn't win the big prizes or go for big money in the auction barn. They're nice, clean pigs that have never seen the inside of a CAFO, and while neither the pigs nor the butchery is exactly "heirloom" or "artisanal," it is clean, local, and most of the ranch kids use their 4H money for their college funds. We're also in the middle of sheep country. The price of lamb was up at the beginning of the summer, and the drought saw most sheep ranchers we knew selling off their flocks early (especially those like our friends Keith and Lauren, who had terrible trouble with coyotes). The end result is that on a lovely crisp September evening, my sweetheart came home with a car full of meat -- a pig and a lamb, including quite a lot of ground meat.

I love lamb. I could easily give up beef if I could keep eating lamb, and so I was more than thrilled when The Lebanese Kitchen and Jerusalem both arrived on my doorstep, close on the heels of my lamb. When I first moved here and started growing a garden, I turned to Middle Eastern cookbooks to figure out what to do with the greens that are the most successful crop that my garden produces each year. Tomatoes and peppers I have to baby along, but greens love our long spring and cool fall, and as anyone who has glanced even cursorily at the vaunted Mediterranean diet can tell you, it's largely made up of greens, grains, olive oil, and small amounts of both lamb and (in the eastern Mediterranean) pork.

The Lebanese Kitchen is another fine example from the publisher Phaidon of the encyclopedic compendia of home cooking that they've become justly known for: this one is written by Salma Hage, who grew up in Lebanon, emigrated to England in 1967, where she became a professional English cook and caterer. However, Lebanese was the food she cooked at home. If there's one thing I really treasure about these Phaidon books, it's the focus on home cooking, the kinds of foods that mothers and grandmothers make, simple dishes that (with the exception of the Indian cookbook) tend not to have long ingredient lists or complicated techniques. The Lebanese Kitchen gives variations on central dishes, so, for instance, there are eight hummus recipes, six falafel recipes, and nearly a dozen recipes for kibbeh variations. This was the summer that I discovered bulgur; it's quick, requires almost no cooking, and I could make a big batch on a Sunday afternoon. Varying the veggies I added, I could have quick lunches all week long. This book gave me a couple of new variations on tabbouleh, including a winter version that I think is going to be a staple this year.

As for lamb, the entire meat chapter is lamb and chicken, and there are recipes for everything from basic grilled chops to elaborate koftas, shwarmas, and stews. There are also wonderful rice recipes to go with the lamb, from the saffron rice with walnuts to the rice and vermicelli (which is the origin recipe for Rice-a-Roni), to a rice-with-potatoes recipe that made my resident carbaholic extremely happy. The Lebanese Kitchen is the kind of book that just keeps offering up terrific recipes and techniques, and, thus, is getting a coveted spot in my crowded kitchen bookshelf.

Jerusalem is the latest cookbook from Yottam Ottolenghi and Sammi Tamimi, Israeli and Palestinian chefs, respectively who own and run a group of restaurants in London. Highly anticipated by those of us who loved last year's Ottolenghi, this is a gorgeous book, full of recipes imbued with the vibrant flavors of Israel and Palestine. Ottolenghi and Tamimi met in London, after they'd each left the Levant, and bonded largely over being homesick for the flavors of home. Jerusalem, they write in the introduction, "is our home almost against our wills. It is our home because it defines us, whether we like it or not." Both men are heading into middle age now, and as so many of us do, they've become nostalgic for the tastes of their childhoods, for instance, a newfound obsession with hummus. Their goal was to "offer our readers a glimpse into a hidden treasure, and at the same time explore our own culinary DNA, unravel the sensations and the alphabet of the city that made us the food creatures we are."

Clearly, there's also not much in this book that will work with my annual pig, but there are plenty of delicious ideas for using up my lamb. Right off, it's the condiments and sauces I've been a little obsessed with. There are recipes for harissa, the garlicky pipelchuma, as well as for a cilantro and green chile paste called zhoug that I've been eating on absolutely everything.

The book opens with a big chapter on vegetables, which unfolds in page after page of vibrant colors and bold flavors. I'm in love with both the root vegetable slaw with lebbeneh and with the spicy carrot salad, and I've only begun to scratch the surface of what this chapter has to offer. There's a parsley and barley salad that looks like it's exactly what I should do with all that parsley in my garden before the snow kills it off. The roasted butternut squash and red onion with tahini and za'atar is so gorgeous that I think every Thanksgiving table this year should have it. Then there are the soups. I live on soup for lunch in the winter, and the hot yogurt and barley soup looks wonderful, as does the cannellini bean and lamb soup. As with The Lebanese Kitchen, there are a lot of hummus variations, and an entire chapter devoted to kibbeh and other stuffed dishes. The meat chapter is a little more various than one in The Lebanese Kitchen, but many of the same koftas, meatballs, and chicken dishes appear in their Jewish or Palestinian variations. Our current favorite is the one that graces the cover of the book, a dish of ground lamb with sumac and tahini sauce into which eggs have been cracked at the last minute. It's easy and delicious, and since I have hens, I'm always looking for new things to do with eggs. There's an extensive chapter of both sweet and savory pastries from which I haven't cooked yet, although the herb pie looks like a terrific dish for the last of my fall greens.

I loved both of these books. In part, because they're filled with flavors I adore, particularly as the weather begins to turn cool here. Chiles, garlic, saffron, and long-cooked sweet onions are all flavors I start to crave as the summer heat fades and the simple grilled meats and salads of summer are put away. I also loved the integrity with which these recipes were presented; these are the everyday foods of this part of the world, and the authors of both books are careful to teach how to achieve the characteristic flavor profiles that define these cuisines, while also offering enough variations on basic themes for the home cook who might want to improvise. I've only scratched the surface of these cuisines and these cookbooks, and I'm looking forward to a long winter of channeling the dishes of the sunbaked Mediterranean as the snow flies here in Montana.