It’s the year of the Middle Eastern cookbook, or at least it seems that way from our mailbox. Of the volumes of Greek, Moroccan, etc., food that have come our way lately, one that caught our early attention features traditional recipes from a Lebanese home cook.
Salma Hage left Lebanon for England in 1967, taking with her a knowledge of Lebanese cooking gleaned from the accomplished cooks in her family. “The Lebanese Kitchen” (Phaidon, 2012, $49.95) presents 500 recipes with a range as diverse as the climates of Hage’s native land. As the foreword points out, Lebanon is home to warm coastal plains, cool mountains and lush valleys; the recipes and their ingredients reflect all of them.
Hage’s food is solid and satisfying. Here are 16 ways to make kibbeh, Lebanon’s national dish, which blends bulgur wheat with meats, vegetables, cheese, fruit or all of the above. There are eight preparations of hummus, another staple. Other recipes tell you how to put together traditional spice blends and Lebanese condiments such as pickles and jams. The beautiful main courses are earthy and flavorful: plenty of lamb, eggplant, tomato and seafood that is basic, but complex with layers of spice. And pretty much all of it can be created without a trip to a Middle Eastern grocery store; most ingredients are American supermarket standards.
A couple caveats: There are no headnotes; those would be helpful. A feature of the book that was amusing at first — the edges of the pages are scalloped, perhaps an art director’s nod to the Lebanese architecture that decorates the book cover — just gets annoying when you have to separate each page individually to turn it. In fine cookbook tradition, the timing given for each recipe tends to be on the rosy side. Take the Spinach and Walnut Tarts on this page, for example. Twenty to 30 minutes to make the caramelized onions, wilted spinach, egg filling and candied nuts, and to butter and arrange 96 squares of phyllo dough? Maybe if you’re a Lebanese grandmother. But no matter: The results were more than worth the effort.