BEIRUT: With takeout and fast food culture on the rise, and more Lebanese than ever not learning to make meals at home, finding a starting point can be a daunting task for an aspiring cook.
Nouhad Asseily’s cookbook “Lebanese Home Cooking Made Easy” provides just that: simple instructions to learn the staples at the foundation of the nation’s cuisine.
In many ways, the book lives up to the title’s claim of having made Lebanese home cooking “easy.”
Lentil soup, for instance, has just five ingredients and as many steps. Ortolan birds with lemon is reduced to three steps and five ingredients. Even a main course such as roast lamb chops is broken down into only three steps and six ingredients.
For intermediate or seasoned cooks, “Lebanese Home Cooking” recipes might seem so stripped down that they are almost offensive.
But for a beginner or someone approaching Lebanese cuisine for the first time the cookbook teaches the standbys in the simplest way possible. How to make spinach stew? Boil spinach, fry meatballs, flavor with coriander and garlic.
And that is Asseily’s main audience: the uninitiated who are often befuddled by the country’s French-influenced Middle Eastern cuisine.
“In recent years, Middle Eastern cuisine has become increasingly appreciated in the West,” Asseily writes in the introduction. “However, my friends always tell me that they find it exceedingly complicated and difficult to prepare. I therefore decided to reconcile the world with our recipes and to make the task easier for lovers of Lebanese food by writing a simple, accessible cookbook.”
The text lives up to its billing and covers lots of ground, offering 73 recipes for salads and mezze, most of which have a prep time of around 10 minutes and are quickly cooked, if they even need to be.
There are 13 soups, 18 seafood dishes, 83 main courses and 48 desserts. Main courses like moghrabiyye, moulokhiyye and daoud bacha, have slightly longer prep and cooking times.
The desserts section is sprinkled with recipes for easy-to-make cakes and cookies like ghoraybe, osmalliyye, and maamoul, as well as more Western sweets like almond tart, shortbread and apple pie.
The start of the book provides a list of standard Lebanese ingredients to stock up on before cooking, as well as an easy-to-read table of contents.
“Lebanese Home Cooking” also offers an English-speaking audience access to Asseily’s work for the first time – she has published cookbooks before in both Arabic and French.
It’s a foundations cookbook if there ever was one, but to be fair Lebanese cuisine isn’t known for its complexity. Indeed, some of the best Lebanese recipes result in simple flavors built almost exclusively with from-the-garden fresh ingredients.
It’s a point Asseily emphasizes in her introduction: “Good cuisine can only be prepared with fresh, high-quality ingredients and, above all, lots of love!”
“Lebanese Home Cooking Made Easy” by Nouhad Asseily ($29, Hachette Antoine) is available from A. Antoine bookstores. The author will be holding a book signing Thursday at the Antoine iD bookstore in Beirut Souks from 4-7 p.m.
- 1 1/2 kilogram fish
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 50 g pine nuts
- 5-7 large onions
- 3 tablespoons cumin powder
- 400 g rice
- Juice of 2-3 lemons
- Bring 1 1/2 liters of water with a handful of salt to a boil in a cooking pot.
- Meanwhile, wash and cut fish into three equal parts (head, body and tail). Salt it.
- In a pan, mix and heat olive oil and vegetable oil. Brown pine nuts in oils and set aside. Fry onions in the same oil until dark brown then pour onions with hot oil in the water and boil again.
- Season with a bit of salt and cumin then cook fish in this broth. When fish is cooked, remove and sprinkle with remaining cumin then debone fish and cut into large pieces.
- Strain the broth and onions through a vegetable mill.
- Cook rice in about 3 cups of the broth to obtain a nice brownish hue.
- Add lemon juice to the remaining broth and set it to boil until you obtain a slightly thick sauce. Adjust salt to taste.
- Place rice in a serving plate. Arrange fish over the rice and garnish with pine nuts. Serve the sauce on the side.