Thursday, January 18, 2018

Middle East Inspired Recipes

Our trip to Jordan and Israel a few months ago didn’t turn us into a fan of falafels but we did enjoy a few new dishes and food ingredients while we were there, and I decided to do a Middle East-inspired menu during our Christmas and New Year celebration at home. And since I realized I haven’t done a recipe post for a while so I am going to share what I did for my main course.




I armed with only a short shopping list when we dropped by Jerusalem’s famous Mahane Yeduda Market for a quick visit, and one of the items I needed was Zaatar, the spice mix used in many Middle Eastern dishes. Ingredients used in a Zaatar mix varies from places to places but generally dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, cumin and sesame seeds were used. We had it a few times while travelling there, either as topping for flatbread, or used in meat stew or condiments for fish. And this time I decided to use this as wet rub for my roast rack of pork, which was our main course on New Year Eve.

I know I know, pork is not exactly the ingredient of choice for authentic Middle Eastern cuisine, but hey I only said “Middle East-inspired”, and I think it worked well to give this an exotic touch and a nutty flavor to the rich and juicy piece of Iberico pork that I picked up from the cold meat stall just a few days prior. I thought about doing this sous vide so I could prepare this in advance, but decided to do the old-school way of roasting in the oven to give it a firm, slightly charred crust.


Recipe: Roast Rack of Pork with Zaatar Spice Rub (serves 6)

Ingredients:
  • Rack of 6 ribs of Iberico Pork (around 1.8kg)
  • 2 tablespoon of Zaatar spice (alternatively you can substitute with a mix of dried thyme, oregano and marjoram)
  • 2 cloves of garlic (preferably roasted)
  • pinch of salt
  • ¼ cup of olive oil
Steps:
1. Defrost the meat if needed – I left my frozen piece in the refrigerator for 3 days and bring it to room temperature a few hours before cooking. The pork rack I picked up was partly trimmed already so I didn’t do much except to remove some of the bits and pieces near to the bone and make sure there’s no bits of bones left in there. But if necessary, trim the pork rack by removing the flesh, membrane and connecting tissue near to the bones – just to make it looks slightly nicer.
2. Chop the garlic slightly into smaller chunks. Put zaatar spices and garlic into the mortar and grind until smooth. Mix with olive oil to form a loose paste of wet rub.
3. Dry the meat with kitchen towel, score the fat in crisscross pattern, then generously rub salt into the meat (on both sides). Then “massage” the wet rub on top – make sure the top part of the rack is entirely covered with the spices.
4. Pre-heat the oven to 210C. Place the pork rack in a roasting pan and then into the oven. After 15 minutes, reduce heat to 190C and continue to roast until the meat reached the internal temperature of 70C (I was told Iberico pork can do a bit of pink so I left it medium-done – mine took about an hour oven time in total)
5. Remove the rack from the oven on a carving board, rest for 10 minutes and carve the meat along the ribs to serve.

The Iberico pork was moist and juicy as is so I served mine without any gravy or sauce, but I thought some acidity and texture would help, so I served with a heaping spoonful of Tabbouleh. It’s essentially a finely chopped herb salad with grains, often served as part of a mezza at the beginning of a Middle Eastern meal, something we had a few times while we were there and loved it. The preparation is straight-forward but just time-consuming as all the ingredients had to be finely chopped by hand.


The most authentic version uses Bulgar wheat as grains, but I used the bag of Trader Joe’s Harvest Grains blend which happened to be sitting in my kitchen cabinet, and feel free to use couscous or even quinoa as substitute. I like some slight acidity to the dish (to go better with my pork rack) so I also added Verjus, which was given to me as a gift by a friend. I love it over the more tart vinegar whenever I wanted something milder and not so over-powering.


Recipe: Tabbouleh (serves 6 as side)

Ingredients
  • 3/4 cup of grain mix
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 1 medium-sized cucumber, seeds removed
  • 2 ripe Roma tomatoes
  • 1 lemon
  • ½ cup of parsley
  • ½ cup of mint
  • 2 tablespoon of verjus (optional)
  • 2 clove of garlic
  • ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Steps:
1. Cook the grains according to the instruction on the package. Drain and cool completely after cooked and set aside in a large mixing bowl.
2. For onions, cucumber and tomatoes, chopped to at least 0.5cm in length – even smaller if you may. Key to a good tabbouleh is to keep it relatively dry (and crunchy), so leave out the juicy beat of the tomatoes, or drain it slightly after dicing.
3. For the herbs, pick the leaves from the parsley and mint until you got about half a cup each. It’s okay if you left some stalks in – this would add to a hint of nuttiness and crunchiness. Grab the picked herbs by a small bunch and chop as finely as you can.
4. In the mixing bowl with the cooked grains, slowly mix in onions, cucumber, garlic, tomatoes and toss well to combine. Zest the lemon and add to the mix, then squeeze the juice in as well. Add the chopped herbs, the verjus and extra olive oil and mix everything together. Taste and add more salt, pepper and/or lemon juice if needed.
5. Set aside the tabbouleh for a couple of hours to let the flavor develop, but don’t leave it too long that it lost the crispy texture from the fresh herbs. Serve in a bowl as salad or use as condiments to the main course (like what I did)

In case you are curious, the tabbouleh was not the only side dish served – I also did a roast cauliflower with tahini sauce, Brussel sprouts, chickpea stew and mashed sweet potatoes, all served family style. That’s in addition to the pita and hummus (both homemade of course) as the first course, and ice cream with halva as dessert, just to go along with the same theme. And of course, plenty of booze to toast away 2017 and celebrate the coming of a new year!


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