BEIRUT: Interest in cranberries worldwide spikes each year in November, when wintertime holiday recipes are traditionally paired with this tangy, antioxidant-rich berry. But the sweet juice and chewy dried fruit make excellent pairings for summer fare.
Lebanese chef Reem Azoury recently led students through a light summertime menu of salads, fish and a fresh-fruit dessert dressed and flavored with a subtle dash of cranberry. It was proof that the winter staple, so often served as a dense sauce beside meat, can be reborn as a summertime flavor.
Azoury started by ushering students into the classroom at Kitchen Lab in Gemmayzeh, where she teaches regular classes that more often than not include fish as the main meal. That day, lunch was a massive slab of fresh salmon coated in panko and tiger shrimp, so large they required a fork and knife to eat.
To start, however, the class began by boiling water for a cold soba noodle salad with charred asparagus and ginger cranberry dressing. Cranberry pairs naturally with typical Asian flavors such as teriyaki and soy sauce, ginger and hot pepper, which provided the Asian-inspired flavor base to Azoury’s menu. Soba, for example, are a Japanese noodle made from buckwheat and which take about 7 minutes to boil.
“I love soba noodles because they’re healthier,” Azoury explained as she instructed a class member to keep the heat on high. Never lower the heat on boiling noodles, she said.
In Azoury’s classroom, cooking is all about sounds: the bubbling water, the sear of asparagus as they hit a hot pan, ginger grinding against a grater. “If you can’t hear this sound, the ginger isn’t grating,” she said, banging the metal grater against the bowl.
Kitchen Lab opened less than a year ago as a teaching space where professional chefs offer regular classes on various culinary themes. The space also includes a boutique chock full of interesting cooking gadgets, from colorful lemon squeezers to pricey stand mixers
In addition to the new recipes, cooking alongside chefs such as Azoury provided students with a stream of advice, from packing salads with flavor to pan frying correctly.
“If you want food to be crispy, to be tasty, you have to add heat and then oil and then meat,” she said.
In Azoury’s freekeh salad, occasional bursts of dried cranberries complemented the creaminess of feta cheese. She suggested taking her recipe up a notch by adding some whole nuts such as pecans or almonds because a good salad should have texture, she explained.
Other advice included using fresh herbs whenever possible in salads, something Azoury said Lebanese were hesitant to do. And instead of throwing out the woody stalk of asparagus, simply peel like a carrot.
Cranberries in their raw form are nearly impossible to find in Beirut. Instead, Azoury’s berry-infused menu relied on Ocean Spray cranberry juices and dried fruit, which are available at most supermarkets.
Even in their processed forms, cranberries offer more than flavor. Nutritionist Raya Nasrallah opened the cooking class by explaining how the unique composition of cranberries makes them a superfood.
“If we go back in history, American Indians used to cook it, eat it with food and also use it as a kind of paste to heal wounds,” she explained. The red color, an indication of its richness in antioxidants, was used thousands of years ago as a natural fabric dye.
Scientists have since found that cranberry consumption can help decrease the risk of a number of diseases. Cranberries can prevent the bacteria responsible for ulcers from clinging to stomach lining. They do the same for the lining of the bladder and can help protect against urinary tract infections. There’s some evidence that cranberries can also prevent cancer, Nasrallah said.
Azoury’s menu paired cranberries with a slew of other superveg. Take her beet and avocado tartar, for example, a visually stunning – but incredibly simple – layering of fresh beetroot, also rich in antioxidants, and avocado, which is packed with omega-3 fatty acids.
And what’s a healthier pairing with fruit than more fruit. For dessert, Azoury soaked fresh strawberries in a sauce of balsamic vinegar, cranberry juice and freshly cracked black pepper and topped it with a dollop of fresh cream.