Monday, May 13, 2013

Lebanese Style Chopped Salad with Sumac (and how to turn it into Fattoush)


Who wouldn't love living here? We've been at our new house just a few months, and already the neighbours are handing food over the fence. On a recent Saturday afternoon I was knee-deep in dirt, happily digging out couch grass. I still had bed hair. And then my reverie was interrupted by a deep 'yo!'. I looked up and saw a great hand waggling a loaf of pita at me; the pita was wrapped around a dozen kefta skewers. 'My mum said your kids like these,' said the unidentifiable eyes barely skimming the fence.

When one's neighbours have eight adult sons, all married with children, and most who come to eat at mum's at least one night a week, one tends to lose track of who has come to visit and whose eyes might be attached to the kefta-holding-hand. But the eyes grinned at me; so I smoothed down my bed hair to no effect, grinned back, and whisked the kefta out of his hands while they were still hot. They were fragrant with cinnamon and parsley, flecked with tomato, warm and juicy, and delicious. Lucky kids. They wolfed them down in seconds.

My fussy daughter – there's always one – has now added Fatima's kefta to the list of meats she will eat. This list consists, in its entirety, of plain sausages 'if they're the ones I like' (the organic GF ones from our local butcher meet her standard, thank god, but nothing too greasy or too thick or too thin or too spicy or too dry); bacon 'if it's not too crispy and not too soft, just a little bit please, and only from that farm' (yes, she can taste if the bacon is from a particular farm which will make her useful in the food industry in fifteen years' time, but makes it expensive to keep her now); sausage rolls 'but only Viv's' (Viv lives 70 miles away, somewhat inconvenient); and Fatima's kefta.

Given she also loathes eggs and fish and is not convinced about chicken (she only likes the skin, and only when roasted), and we have soy and shellfish allergies in the house (good grief!) I have latched onto kefta as a refreshing change from expensive sausages, very expensive bacon, chickpeas, and lentils. But my neighbours offers them only sporadically, and I don't know them well enough to beg for more, so I've been trying to make my own.

So far, I'm told, the results have been 'too bland, not like Fatima's'. I pointed out to my seven year old that Fatima has probably been making kefta once a week for forty years, which would mean she's practiced some 2,000 times; I've made it twice in two months. My daughter has to give me a few more goes to get it right before she can criticise. And bland? Huh.

My kefta isn't bad, but I agree that it's nowhere near Fatima's. I'll keep practicing. In the meantime, I can report that I've come up with the perfect salad to go with it, and now is the time to make it, what with those very end of season capsicums, cucumbers and tomatoes. The vegetables are chopped small and dressed with lemon juice and sumac. Juicy, sour, fragrant: it goes down a treat. Although my seven year old would prefer it had no green capsicum.

Lebanese Style Chopped Salad with Sumac (and how to turn it into Fattoush)

- 2 green capsicums (bell peppers)
- 4 Lebanese cucumbers
- 2 tomatoes
- 2 spring onions
- generous bunch of mint
- a bunch of Italian flat-leaf parsley (a good 10 stalks)
- 2 tbs olive oil
- the juice of a lemon
- 3 tsp sumac
- sea salt

Sprinkle a good pinch of sea salt in the base of a salad bowl, then squeeze in the lemon. The juice will dissolve the salt. Add the olive oil.

If the cucumbers are Lebanese, chop them. If they're home grown and the seeds have grown a bit large, deseed them. And if you're substituting English cucumbers, peel and deseed them before chopping. Phew.

Chop the other vegetables into small even dice, about a centimetre square. Throw them into the bowl. Chop the herbs coarsely; make sure you still have nice bits of mint and parsley identifiable. Throw them into the bowl, too.

Sprinkle in the sumac, then toss gently but well. Serve immediately, while everything is still crunchy.

You can turn this into fattoush merely by adding some stale pita bread, cut into small wedges, at the last minute. If you like your bread crisp, brush it with olive oil, sprinkle it with sumac, and toast it in a moderate oven for one to two minutes. Break it up, sprinkle it over the salad, and eat immediately.

(Garden: parsley, mint. A friend of a friend's garden – thanks Jen and Raheem! – tomatoes, cucumbers. A neighbour's tree: lemons. Local veg box: green capsicum (bell peppers). Grampians: olive oil. Northern Victoria: salt. Imported, but it's small and flavourful: sumac.)

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