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Three recipes from Reem Kassis's new book, The Arabesque Table

Palestinian food writer Reem Kassis’s latest book weaves together history, memoir and recipes to bring the diverse food cultures of the contemporary Arab world to life. Here, she shares three of her favourite recipes.

By Reem Kassis
Published 4 Mar 2021, 08:00 GMT, Updated 4 Mar 2021, 12:35 GMT
Fatteh is a common dish across the Middle East, with toppings varying from aubergines and chickpeas ...

Fatteh is a common dish across the Middle East, with toppings varying from aubergines and chickpeas to rice and meat.

Photograph by Dan Perez

1. Shiitake mushroom fatteh

Fatteh is a common dish across the Middle East, with toppings varying from aubergines and chickpeas to rice and meat. Moona, a restaurant in Boston, has a version made with mushrooms. Their earthy, meaty taste is superbly complemented by the sweet tartness of pomegranate molasses. Note: If you’re using pomegranate molasses containing sugar, leave out the honey.

Serves: 4
Takes: 45 mins

INGREDIENTS

2 large or 4 small thin pitta breads (165g), cut into 2cm squares

For the yoghurt sauce
300g yoghurt
3 tbsp tahini
2-3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 small clove garlic, crushed

For the mushrooms
60ml olive oil
35g unsalted butter
1 large shallot, finely diced
4 garlic cloves, crushed
300g shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, caps chopped into bite-size pieces700g mushrooms (a combination of portobello, chestnut or other varieties), chopped into bite-size pieces
1½ tbsp pure pomegranate molasses
2 tsp honey
1 x 400g tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed

To serve
50g toasted walnut pieces, coarsely chopped
small bunch of dill fronds
crushed chilli flakes or pomegranate seeds (optional)

METHOD

1. Heat oven to 180C, 160C fan, gas 4 and arrange the pitta pieces on a baking sheet. Bake for around 20-30 mins, moving the pitta around from time to time, until the squares are completely dry and crisp and starting to darken in colour. Remove and set aside.

2. To make the yoghurt sauce, put the yoghurt, tahini, lemon juice, garlic and ½ tsp salt in a bowl and stir to combine. Set aside.

3. Heat the olive oil and butter in a large frying pan set over a medium-high heat. Add the shallot and fry for 3-5 mins, stirring constantly, until translucent and starting to brown. Add the garlic and 1 tsp salt and cook until fragrant, around 1 min. Add the shiitake mushrooms and cook for 1 min more. Add the remaining mushrooms and another 1 tsp salt and cook until tender but retaining some bite, around 5 mins. If the mushrooms release some liquid, that’s fine — you don’t need to cook until it evaporates, only until the mushrooms are tender. Pour in the pomegranate molasses and honey and give it a final stir, then add the chickpeas and cook for 1 min. Remove from the heat.

4. Set the pitta on a serving platter or divide between small plates. Top with the mushroom mixture, pour over the yoghurt sauce and sprinkle with the toasted walnuts and dill. Finish with the chilli flakes or pomegranate seeds, if you like. Serve immediately.

Veal shanks can be used as an alternative to short ribs when making Reem's grape leaf braised short ribs.

Photograph by Dan Perez

2. Grape leaf braised short ribs

One of my favourite parts of a pot of stuffed grape leaves is the meat lining the bottom — crispy in parts, but mostly melt-in-your-mouth tender and rife with flavour. I don’t always have the patience to spend several hours wrapping a whole pot of grape leaves, so I found this way to braise meat, which yields the best part of the whole dish with a fraction of the effort. 

Serves: 4-6
Takes: 3 hr 40 mins

INGREDIENTS

795g bone-in short ribs or veal shanks
795g boneless beef short ribs or beef cheeks
3 bay leaves
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp nine-spice mix (see recipe below), baharat or Lebanese seven-spice blend
½ tsp ground cumin
30-40 fresh grape leaves

METHOD

1. Place the meat in a large bowl. Add the bay leaves, olive oil, pomegranate molasses, soy sauce, spice mix, cumin, 2 tsp salt and ½ tsp black pepper and mix until evenly and fully coated. Cover and put in the fridge overnight to marinate.

2. Heat oven to 260C, 240C fan, gas 10. Get a roasting pan that’s large enough to snugly fit your cuts of meat and line it with half the grape leaves. Remove the meat from the fridge and rest it on top of the grape leaves. Cover with the remaining grape leaves, ensuring no meat is visible. Put a layer of parchment paper over the roasting pan, then tightly cover with a layer of foil.

3. Put the pan in the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 200C, 180C fan, gas 6. Roast for 30 mins, then reduce the heat to 140C, 120C fan, gas 1 and roast for another 2-3 hrs until the meat is fork-tender. The meat should release enough juices to keep it moist and give you nice pan juices at the end, but check once during the cooking time and, if the pan is dry, add a few tablespoons of water, cover tightly again, and return to the oven until done.

4. Serve directly from the oven or transfer to a serving platter, then pour the pan juices over the top.

Nine-spice mix

Ask an Arab person for any recipe, and the ingredients list will almost surely include baharat. Baharat simply means ‘spices’ and each region has its own mix. While generic blends are easily purchased from spice vendors, families often have their own unique iterations. This one is the spice mix I grew up on. My mother made it at home and used it in most of our dishes, sometimes supplementing with whatever flavour needed to shine.

Takes: 15 mins, plus 1 hour cooling 
Makes: about 1 cup

INGREDIENTS

6 tbsp allspice berries
6 small cassia bark or cinnamon sticks
3 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1 tsp cardamom seeds or 10 whole cardamom pods
½ tsp cumin seeds
10 whole cloves
2 blades of mace
1 whole nutmeg

METHOD

1. Tip all the spices into a large dry frying pan and toast over a medium-low heat for around 10 mins until aromatic. Stir with a wooden spoon periodically to ensure the spices don’t burn.

2. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool completely, around 1 hour (this step is crucial because if the spices aren’t cooled properly, they’ll form a paste rather than a powder when ground).

3. Transfer the roasted spices to a heavy-duty spice grinder and grind until you achieve a fine powder. Store the spice mix in an airtight container. It will keep for several months, although the aroma will fade with time. 
 

Reem's tahini cheesecake with chocolate glaze and sesame seeds is a classic Western-style baked cheesecake, but with added layers of flavour.

Photograph by Dan Perez

3. Tahini cheesecake with chocolate glaze and sesame seeds

The consumption of cheese in sweet form is as old as cheese itself. This is a classic Western-style baked cheesecake, but with added layers of flavour.

Serves: 12
Takes: 1 hr 15 mins, plus at least 3 hrs cooling

INGREDIENTS
 

For the crust
150g mix of speculoos and digestive biscuits, blitzed to form crumbs
100g pistachios or pecans, finely chopped
150g sugar
113g unsalted butter, melted

For the filling
3 x 225g tubs cream cheese, at room temperature
200g caster sugar
3 eggs
80g good-quality tahini
3 tbsp grape molasses, honey or maple syrup
2 tbsp double cream
2 tsp cornflour
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the topping
100ml double cream
100g dark chocolate (at least 55%), broken into small pieces
2 tbsp unhulled sesame seeds, lightly toasted

METHOD

1. Heat oven to 180C, 160C, gas 4. Line a 23cm springform pan with a round of parchment paper.

2. To make the crust, combine the biscuit crumbs, nuts, sugar and butter in a bowl and mix until incorporated. Press the crumb mixture evenly into the bottom of the pan, pushing it halfway up the sides; use a flat measuring cup to help with this, if you like. Bake for 10 mins, then set aside to cool. Leave the oven on. (The crust can be pre-baked up to one day ahead and left, covered, at room temperature once cooled.)

3. To make the filling, beat the cream cheese and sugar together in a stand mixer, with the paddle at a medium-high speed, for around 1 min until creamy and smooth (alternatively, blitz in a bowl using an electric mixer or in a food processor). Add the eggs, tahini, grape molasses, double cream, cornflour, vanilla, and ½ tsp salt and continue to beat at a medium speed until smooth, around 1-3 mins (bear in mind that a food processor will be quicker than a stand mixer, so adjust timings accordingly).

4. Pour the filling evenly into the crust. Put in the oven and bake for 50 mins until the cake is set but the centre has a light jiggle. Turn off the oven, prop the door open with a wooden spoon and allow the cake to cool inside for another hour. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool completely.

5. For the topping, heat the double cream in a small saucepan until it’s close to boiling. Remove from the heat, add the chocolate and let rest for 2 mins. Stir with a spatula until the chocolate has melted and the ganache is smooth and shiny. Allow to cool for a few minutes more.

6. Pour the topping over the cheesecake and smooth. Sprinkle the sesame seeds in a pattern over the ganache, then set aside. Once cooled, put in the fridge for a few hours or overnight. To serve, remove the sides of the springform pan and slide the cake onto a platter.

Reem Kassis' book, The Arabesque Table: Contemporary Recipes from the Arab World, is published by Phaidon. RRP £24.95 

Published in Issue 11 (spring 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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