Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Favorite dishes from the middle-East
Olive oil has been produced and consumed in the Eastern Mediterranean since time immemorial. In the Cairo museum, a collection of papyri dating more than 5,000 years ago, from Pharaonic Egypt, talks about the olive oil and preserved olives trade between Minoan Crete and the land of the Pharaohs.
Much of the best modern extra virgin oil produced in the region comes from Greece, Turkey and Lebanon.
In my larder I always keep fresh extra virgin olive oil, produced within the last year, to be used in salads. And olive oil, produced within the past 2.5 years, to be used for general cooking and frying.
Among those bottles one can find a Greek Minerva (a light, slightly bitter oil that I use to dress salads); the Turkish first cold pressed, extra virgin, Rosolini; and from Lebanon’s Quadisha valley and the Ehden Grove, Oleavanti, a couple bottles of oil that are rich, pungent and are outstanding as finishing oils for salads or one of the middle-Eastern dips like hummus and oil stewed vegetables.
The most common use of fresh, extra virgin olive oil in Greek cookery is for salad dressing. It is called “ladolemono” and is a simple mixture of freshly squeezed lemon juice and olive oil in a 1:3 ratio i.e. 1 part of lemon juice to 3 parts of oil, whisked until emulsified. I usually add some salt and pepper and, depending on what type of salad I’m dressing, dry oregano or dry mustard.
Through the years, many recipes have been developed that utilize abundant olive oil and local vegetables. They are very popular in Greece and Turkey; most are based on Byzantine cooking preferences. These dishes are eaten either cold or at room temperature and they can stay without refrigeration for as long as a week, as the olive oil is a good preservative.
Artichokes a-la Polita
A-la Polita, means “in the cooking style of the Polis i.e. Constantinople (Istanbul)” and is a traditional, vegan, lenten dish that is favored in both Greece and Turkey.
Ingredients (4 to 6 servings):
Cook the finely chopped onion in the olive oil, in a pot over low heat, until soft and golden; about 10 minutes.
While the onion is sautéing cut the stem of the artichokes leaving about 1/3 inch attached, peel the removed stem pieces and add to the rest of the vegetables. Keep a large bowl halfway filled with ice water and 1-2 lemons cut in half in the water. Remove the outer leaves of the artichoke and the hairy choke. Rub them with the lemon halves and placethem in the bowl of water. This will keep them from changing color and turning black.
Add the grated garlic to the cooking pot and warm through. Add scallions and cook over low heat until soft. About 5 minutes. Add the carrots, the peeled stems and all-purpose flour. Mix and cook for 1-2 minutes over high heat.
Add the artichokes, potatoes and season with salt and pepper. Pour enough water in the cooking pot to almost cover the artichokes and vegetables. Bring to a boil then cover the pot with the lid. Reduce to a medium-low heat and cook about 45 minutes or until the vegetables are fully cooked and tender and most of the water has evaporated.
Add the green peas and stir to combine.
Combine the lemon juice with the cornstarch in a small bowl and mix to dissolve. Begin with a small quantity of lemon juice (1/4 cup) because sometimes lemons can be very strong. Add to the pot. You can always add more lemon juice afterwards, if needed.
Taste and adjust the salt and pepper, as needed.
Another favorite dish is “Imam Bayildi” a classic Eastern Mediterranean dish traditionally cooked using long (Asian) eggplant and plenty of olive oil. It is part of both Turkish and Greek gastronomy, with variants in Lebanese and Egyptian cookery.
Literally translated from the Turkish, the name means “The priest i.e. leader of prayers at the mosque, fainted”. That, according to legend, is because the priest saw how much olive oil his wife used in making the dish; olive oil, in the past, was an expensive ingredient. Another version of the legend says, because the dish is so tasty.
In Turkish cuisine, the vegetables are poached in olive oil and some water with a combination of tomatoes, onions and garlic, and served either cold or at room temperature with a slice of lemon on the side. It is a delicious and refreshing dish, very suitable for hot summer days; it just melts in your mouth.
Ingredients (4 to 6 servings):
Using a vegetable peeler, peel the eggplants in stripes length wise. At each eggplant, cut a slit along the length, without cutting through to the skin on the opposite side and leaving 1/2″ uncut at either end. (If using Italian eggplants, half the eggplant and slit the meat of each half). Sprinkle salt (this will help the moisture and bitter juice to come out) over the eggplants and lay on paper towels for about 15 minutes to leach out the liquid. Thoroughly drain and pat dry the eggplants with a paper towel to get rid of the moisture, otherwise they will become soggy.
Heat about ½ inch light olive oil in a deep sided frying pan or a sauteuse . Place the eggplants in the oil and shallow fry quickly on all sides until they are softened and have a light brown color, for about 3-5 minutes.
Prepare the filling. Stir the sliced onions and garlic in a bowl, add 3 tablespoons of olive oil, salt and ground black pepper to taste. Knead the mixture with your hands for the seasonings to blend well (this will also help the onions to soften). Stir in the chopped tomatoes and parsley and combine well.
Lift the eggplants to a chopping board and open up the split in the middle to create pockets. Spoon the filling mixture into these pockets, packing it in tightly so that all of the filling is used up (if you have any left over filling, I would simply sprinkle it over the eggplants).
Place the stuffed eggplants side by side in a wide, heavy pan. Mix the remaining olive oil with 3/4 cup water, lemon juice and sugar and pour it over the eggplants.
Cover the pan with a lid and place over medium heat to get the oil hot and create some steam. You could cook the stuffed eggplants in a hot oven as well. Once the cooking liquid is hot, cook the eggplants for about 45-50 minutes. Once cooked, they should be soft and tender, with only olive oil left at the bottom of the pan.
Leave the eggplants to cool in the pan for the flavors to settle, then carefully transfer them to a serving dish and spoon the oil from the pan over them. Serve at room temperature or cold, with a wedge of lemon on-the-side and some extra garnish of chopped parsley over them.
July, August and September are the best months for cooking this dish, though, if you can find fresh eggplants during the rest of the year, do cook this delightful meal at any time. Choose eggplants with smooth, shiny skin, having no blemishes or bruises. Wrinkled skin is an indication of age and the fruit could be very bitter. Asian eggplants have fewer seeds, thinner skin, and tend to be sweeter, tenderer, and less bitter than the Italian.
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