Last Thursday, I co-hosted an event with Salt Cafe and Bear Pond Books to present a dinner and cookbook event. Here was the scheme: Salt would serve a tasting menu of recipes from the new Honey & Co. cookbook and dinner attendees would get both dinner and a copy of the book (or a substitute book for those bringing dates with whom they shared cookbook collections).
Mezze ~ Moroccan Carrot Pickle, Ashtanur Griddle Bread, Mashawsha, Labaneh, Dinosaur Eggs:
Dinner ~ Pomegranate Molasses Chicken with Bulgar Wheat Salad; Meatballs in a Sweet, Sour & Spicy Tomato Sauce; Pita Bread
Dessert ~ Feta & Honey Cheesecake on a Kadaif Pastry Base; Orange Blossom Iced Tea
Honey & Co. is an actual restaurant in London serving modern Middle Eastern fare, and Salt became a restaurant serving selections from the Honey & Co. restaurant menu for one evening. So was it just like a visit to London? Only if Montpelier has a hidden Buckingham Palace somewhere, but it was still fun to have a taste of a restaurant from another place.
I helped out in the kitchen because 1. I'm the one who is coordinating a summer of cookbook events at Bear Pond and 2. it's the kitchen that will also be Hel's Kitchen so I'm not going to waste a chance to get comfortable cooking there. Neither Suzanne (the Salt chef) nor I turn out to be very good at following recipes strictly - we're more into flights of creative fancy. But we did our best and pretty much served exactly what the cookbook instructed us to serve. That means the diners could recreate the meal they enjoyed at home using their new cookbook. It helps to have all day to cook. And someone else washing dishes
Middle Eastern cuisine has vibrant flavors and comes together relatively easily. There are some spices that may not be in your cabinet right now - sumac, za'atar, harissa paste, rose water, orange blossom water. These are all items that, once you start cooking with them, you'll find plenty of excuses to use. Try this straightforward lamb-sumac dish and you'll see what I mean. You could use beef instead of lamb.
A lot of Middle Eastern cookbooks have been published in the last few years, starting with the popular Ottolenghi series. These books are good if you like "bright" flavors (lots of lemon, for example), dishes that don't require much oven time, spreads and dips for flatbreads, and salads as main courses. If you take lunch seriously, perhaps enjoyed on the porch in summer, you need one of these books. If I were a lunch connoisseur, these are the places where I'd find my recipes:
Honey & Co.
Rosewater and Orange Blossoms
Olives, Lemons and Za'atar
Under the Shade of Olive Trees
New Book of Middle Eastern Food (which is not, in fact, new but has enough passionate fans that it merits a mention here)
Needless to say, if you weren't at last Thursday's feast, you will have another chance. . . this cuisine will definitely find its way into the Hel's Kitchen menu rotation in the future.