Mezze to Milk Tart: from The Middle East to Africa in my vegetarian kitchen
By Cecile Yazbeck (published by Wakefield Press)
It took a while for Cecile Yazbek's voice to grab me, to seduce me into the kitchen, though now we've been there together half a dozen times or so, I'm not sure that I can tell you what it was that initially held me back. Good books - the best of cookery books - are like that, not so much page-turners, but made up of the the kind of pages you end up lingering over, remembering as you're driving along listening to all the economic doom and gloom on the radio, that come to you in the middle of the night, that remind what it is that you enjoy so very much about food writing.
Actually, apart from the lovely cover image, I think it was that the book is illustrated with images not, for the most part, of food that made me slower to take it all in, but of old family photographs, a family I did not (yet) know. Having read the book cover to cover now, I feel I know Yazbek's people a little better - and the pictures, now, are wonderful.
the modestly-titled Eggplant Bake
Let's talk about the food first: recipes couldn't be explained more simply, and yet, like many of my favourite cooks, they deliver in spades because they are cleverly spiced, carefully constructed, and none too difficult for a busy home cook to prepare. Better yet is that this is food that is budget-friendly, and the ingredients are, like a lot of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean/African/Good Vegetarian recipes, generally inexpensive and, for the most part, easy to find. Mind you, I had a stupidly difficult time finding burghul this weekend in Kyneton, but I'll stock up in the city this week 'cos I want to cook and eat everything she does.
Yazbek uses loads of vegetables. I mean, just look at everything that went into that dish above:
Dishes are inventive, the flavours just my kind. She kicks things off with the unfortunately-titled Sweated Vegetable Mix (6 carrots, an onion and 6 celery sticks, all grated and sweated for up to 45 minutes over the lowest heat possible in a heavy, lidded pan with 2 bay leaves, 3 tablespoons of olive oil and a little salt) and turns the mixture - something you can, indeed should, freeze in 2 cup amounts for later use - into 8 very different, quick meals. The Oat Patties, oven-baked (vegan now I come to think about it) were served on a thick gingery, garlicky tomato sauce of my own making. Astoundingly good, made from simple ingredients in the pantry.
Ingenious, delectable stuff for mid-week.
Kibbe of Potatoes
This weekend the two of us enjoyed her Kibbe of Potatoes (vegan, again), filled with a mixture of onions and currants and walnuts over three meals, and it just got better each day. It needs a juicy, crunchy, salty salad to go with it to my mind, something to offset the sweetness of the cinnamon in the kibbe dough, and I will be making the pumpkin version come autumn.
Generous, this is a book that is inclusive to all styles of vegetable-friendly eating; vegans, gleegans and the ovo-lacto-vegetarian will all find solace within this collection. Chapters cover, among other things, tofu (lots of gorgeous tofu in here), cooking from the garden (close to my own heart, and packed full of eggplant and okra recipes!), celebratory food, everyday food and, of course, the food of South Africa via Lebanon. She, like Kathryn, puts dessert in context, and I love them both for that!
Then there's Yazbek's writing voice. The book is part manual, part memoir and manages to be modest, poetic, wise, compassionate, funny (very) and warm. It's a cookbook with soul, one to read for more than recipes alone. This, from Food for the Road, I love:
Solitary driving and stopping at will for a view, or to write something that silence has dislodged, is as gratifying as arriving in the arms of loving friends - the moment when the city and all cares of home have fallen away. Enfolded in green hills, close to a blue and white sea, I become friend to myself once more.
Look. I could just go on and on about Mezze to Milk Tart (and have, at length, to friends, some of whom think I've gone mad), but I think it's best that you try and track down a copy for yourself. It is thoughtful, full of food that wends its way through some of the most interesting parts of the world, and is both fresh and inventive.