20 best Middle Eastern recipes: part 4

Lebanese falafel, Turkish stuffed mussels and Honey & Cos signature pudding, feta and honey cheesecake, finish our collection of the best Middle Eastern dishes to cook at home

Anissa Helou’s stuffed mussels – midye dolmasi

If there were one street food I could take with me to a desert island, it would have to be stuffed mussels. I remember the first time I visited Istanbul in the mid 1970s, I stayed at the Pera Palace, still in its faded glory, spending my mornings in mosques and museums and my afternoons and early evenings in the bazaars.

I was on a mission to find the ultimate stuffed mussels. I had never eaten them before and had fallen in love with this elaborate delicacy that was sold so cheaply on the street when it could have been on the menu of a Michelin-starred restaurant.

My hotel was just down the road from Çiçek Passajı (Flower Passage), a lovely small market leading into a maze of narrow streets full of charming restaurants. Every afternoon, I walked up to the market to sample stuffed mussels. At that time, there were many stalls selling them, while today only one remains. I went from one vendor to the next, tasting the mussels. If they were good, I would linger, gesturing to the vendor to give me one more, then another and another until I had eaten half a dozen extra mussels. Fortunately the last remaining stuffed-mussels vendor is one of the best in town.

It is not that easy to find mussels that are large enough for stuffing. If you can’t find any, simply change the dish to a pilaf by preparing 2–3 times the amount of rice stuffing and cooking it completely. Steam the mussels separately and arrange them, on the half shell, on top of the cooked rice.

Serves 4
extra-virgin olive oil 4 tbsp
pine nuts 1 tbsp
onions 2 small, peeled and finely chopped
paella rice 110g, or other white short-grain rice (bomba, Calasparra or Egyptian), soaked in warm water
raisins 1 tbsp
tomato paste 1½ tbsp
ground cinnamon ¼ tsp
ground allspice ¼ tsp
paprika ¼ tsp
cayenne pepper a pinch
ground cloves a pinch
sea salt
finely ground black pepper
mussels about 40 medium-to-large, in their shells
flat-leaf parsley 1 tbsp, chopped
dill 1 tbsp, minced
lemon wedges to serve

Put the olive oil, pine nuts and onions in a saucepan and sauté, stirring regularly, until lightly golden. Drain the rice and add to the pan. Add the raisins, tomato paste and spices, and some salt and pepper, then pour in just enough water to cover – about 250ml. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered with a lid, for 8-10 minutes or until the water is absorbed and the rice barely done. Take off the heat, wrap the lid in a clean tea towel and place back over the pan before setting it aside to cool down.

Preparing the mussels is a lengthy and rather difficult process, so allow time and be patient. First pull off and discard the beards, if there are any, and rinse the mussels under cold water – don’t let them soak or they will die. Lay one mussel on a tea towel on your work surface and insert the tip of a small sharp knife in between the two shells at the slanted end. Slide the knife downward and all around the shell until you cut into the muscle – the mussel will open easily with the two halves remaining attached. Prepare the rest of the mussels in the same way. Take your time and don’t rush this part of the preparation or you will either break the shells or hurt yourself with the knife.

Once you have opened all the mussels, stir the fresh herbs into the rice and fill each mussel with a teaspoon or more of the rice mixture, depending on how large it is. Close both halves of the shell together, wipe away any rice grains sticking to the outside and arrange in 2-3 layers in the top part of a steamer. Weigh down the filled mussels with a plate and steam for 20-25 minutes. Remove the steamer section and let the mussels cool. Serve at room temperature with the lemon wedges.
From Levant by Anissa Helou (Harper Collins, £20)

Georgina al Bayeh’s falafel

Falafel. Photograph: Martin Poole for the Observer

This is a recipe of my father, who has a small falafel shop in the village of Kfar Dlekos in north Lebanon.

Serves 6
dried chickpeas 1kg
pepper 1 tsp
salt ½ tsp
falafel pepper spice 2 tbsp (see below)
bicarbonate of soda ½ tsp
plain white flour 2 tbsp
vegetable oil about 100ml

For the falafel pepper mix
black pepper, allspice, coriander, cumin and nutmeg mix together the same amount of these ground spices

Put the chickpeas in a large bowl and add enough cold water to cover them by at least 5cm. Leave to soak overnight.

Place the drained chickpeas into a food processor. Add the salt and pepper, and the falafel pepper mix.

Process the chickpeas until they have broken down and formed a mush, but not a puree. If it’s too thick, add a bit of water to make it a bit runnier.

Next add the bicarbonate of soda and a little of the flour. Pulse, and slowly add the flour till the dough is no longer sticky and can be easily shaped into a ball – like a soft bread dough.

Transfer the dough from the food processor and into a bowl. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for a couple of hours.

After a couple of hours, remove the chickpeas from the fridge and start forming the falafels. Roll the chickpeas into balls, approximately the size of ping pong balls, flatten the balls a bit so they cook evenly when fried.

Heat a few inches of oil in a deep frying pan. Fry the falafels in batches, for a few minutes on each side. When they are golden brown, remove from the pan and drain on paper.

Serve the falafels in Arabic bread or pitta bread, with salad, tahini and pickled vegetables.
Georgina Al Bayeh is a cook at Tawlet in Lebanon;

Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich’s feta and honey cheesecake on a kadaif pastry base

Feta and honey cheesecake on a kadaif pastry base. Photograph: Patricia Niven

This dessert has become our signature dish. It is quite complex, with a few different components, and is quite ambitious for home preparation – not because the stages are difficult, but because there are a few of them. You can use a generic supermarket feta, but for a finish that is smooth and salty, buy one of the tinned smooth fetas sold in Middle Eastern delis.

Kadaif is the most amazing pastry; it is made out of tiny thin noodles that you bake with butter and sugar. The best thing to do is to buy it ready-made in a Middle Eastern grocery store; use what you need for this recipe and keep the rest in the freezer for next time. However, if you can’t find kadaif, use filo pastry and shred it as finely as you can with a knife or a pair of scissors.

The advantage of this dish is that each part can be made in advance and assembled just before you are going to eat – just as we do at Honey & Co. So it is good for stress-free entertaining (although not so much for stress-free preparation). You could simply make the cheesecake cream and place it in a large bowl, sprinkling with some nuts and drizzling with honey; not quite the same, but still tasty.

Makes a generous 4 portions
For the kadaif base
melted butter 25g
kadaif pastry 50g (or shredded filo)
caster sugar 1 tbsp

For the cheesecake cream
full-fat cream cheese 160g (we use Philadelphia)
extra thick double cream 160ml
icing sugar 40g
honey 40g of your choice (a grainy one works best, in my opinion)
feta 50g, smooth and creamy
vanilla pod seeds from ½ (or 1 tsp vanilla essence)

For the honey syrup
honey 50ml
water 50ml

For the garnish
fresh oregano or marjoram leaves a few
whole roasted almonds a handful, roughly chopped
some mellow-flavoured seasonal fruit white peaches or blueberries are best (raspberries or apricots are also good)

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4.

Mix the melted butter with the pastry and sugar in a bowl. Fluff the pastry by pulling it and loosening the shreds with your hands till it gets an even coating of sugar and butter. Divide into four equal amounts, pulling each clump of pastry out of the mass like a little ball of yarn. Place these on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. They should resemble four flat birds’ nests, each about the size of a drinks coaster.

Bake for about 12-15 minutes or until golden. Allow to cool and keep in an airtight container until ready to serve. The pastry nests will keep for 2-3 days, so you can prepare them well in advance.

Place all the cheesecake cream ingredients in a large bowl and combine with a spatula or a big spoon, using circular folding motions until the mixture thickens and starts to hold the swirls. Don’t use a whisk: it’s vital not to add air to the mixture as the secret is in the texture. Check that it is sufficiently thick by scooping some onto a spoon and turning it upside-down: it should stay where it is. If it is still too soft, mix it some more. (If you are increasing the quantities in this recipe to feed lots of people, I suggest using a paddle on a mixer for this, but you’ll need to watch it like a hawk so it doesn’t turn into butter.) You can prepare the cheesecake cream in advance (up to 48 hours before serving) and keep it covered in the fridge until it is time to assemble the dessert.

Put the honey and water for the syrup in a small pan and boil together for 1 minute, skimming off any foam or impurities that come to the top. Remove from the hob and leave to cool, then store covered in the fridge until you are ready to serve.

When you come to assemble the dessert, place a pastry nest on each plate and top with a generous scoop of the cheesecake mix. Sprinkle over the herb leaves and chopped nuts, add a few blueberries or a couple of slices of peach, and drizzle a tablespoon of the honey syrup over everything. If you want to be super-luxurious, drizzle with some raw honey as well.
Honey & Co: Food from the Middle East by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich (Hodder & Stoughton, £25)

Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich’s chocolate sandwich cookies filled with tahini cream

Chocolate sandwich cookies filled with tahini cream. Photograph: Patricia Niven

Even if you are a hopeless baker like I (Itamar) am, you need to have one or two killer desserts in your repertoire. This one is mine. I found the chocolate cookie recipe in a magazine and followed it religiously. I was very impressed with the results, Sarit less so. She went on to change the recipe completely and add the tahini cream. No matter. These are good enough (and rich enough) to serve as dessert on their own and are dead easy to make. Do not be tempted to over-bake them; their greatness lies in their gooey centre.

Makes 7 sandwiches (or 14 cookies)
For the dough
unsalted butter 40g
70% dark chocolate 250g
eggs 2
light brown soft sugar 150g
cocoa powder 20g
70% dark chocolate 50g, chopped

For the filling
tahini paste 40g
full fat cream cheese 50g
double cream 50g/ml
icing sugar 25g

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6 and line two trays with baking parchment. Melt the butter and chocolate together in the microwave or over a double steamer.

Whisk the eggs and sugar to a really fluffy, white, peaky sabayon. Fold the melted chocolate mixture into the sabayon. Add the cocoa powder and chocolate chunks and fold to combine.

Use a piping bag or two spoons to make about 14 heaps of cookie dough (each about 30-35g) on the baking trays.

Allow plenty of space (at least 5cm) between each one as they spread quite a bit during baking.

Bake for 9 minutes until they have formed a crust but are still really soft. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely on the tray before filling.

Combine all the filling ingredients in a mixer with a paddle attachment, working the mixture at a really slow speed until smooth, creamy and able to hold its shape. Alternatively, you could whisk the ingredients together by hand, but be very careful not to over-whisk.

Pair the cookies and flip them base-upwards. Place a spoonful of filling in the centre of half the upturned cookies, then use the other cookie in each pair to close the sandwich, pressing lightly until the filling reaches the edges. You can eat these straight away or keep them in the fridge for a few days, if you can resist for that long.
Honey & Co: The Baking Book by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich (Hodder & Stoughton, £25)

Anissa Helou’s fig ice cream – boozat teen

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