Eastern Promise

Written by  Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Reading about food these days it seems that everyone’s attention has moved to the Middle East. Thanks to trend setting restaurants such as Moro and influential writers such as Yotam Ottolenghi, the flavours from Morocco, Egypt, the Lebanon, Syria and Israel are getting more attention than ever before. So it’s all pomegranate molasses this and sumac that and just as we’ve got to grips with garam masala mix right, home cooks are having to learn about ras el hanout and za’atar.

Of course it’s all quite delicious and eating out has become very exciting but the recipes can be daunting with ingredient lists as long as your arm and two or three day processes involved - all a bit overwhelming really. So when I got an invitation one of Mary Wilkins’ demo and dine days called Flavours of the East I jumped at the chance.

I’ve written about Mary before. She is a highly skilled professional chef who has cooked with the best: Anton Edelmann and Jean Luc Christophe to name but two. Along with her husband Neil, she runs one of Northumberland’s very best catering firms: Wilkins Fine Dining. Solo she also runs The Mary Wilkins Cookery School offering workshops, classes and demonstrations in various lovely venues all over the county. We went back to the wonderful ewly restored and very beautiful kitchen at Crag End Farm, just outside of Rothbury, to get a taste of the near East. 

So the menu:

Baba ganoush, hummus and flat breads

Middle Eastern pork tenderloin & pomegranate tabbouleh

Warm spiced cauliflower, feta & cumin salad

Pistachio & almond baklava with roasted nectarines

Six of us were greeted on arrival with the usual delicious coffee and delicious ginger cake – this particular recipe a closely guarded secret. And then down to business.

First off, a flat bread dough (made using yoghurt, instead of water, and flavoured with roasted coriander seeds) was mixed up and set to prove on the aga. There is something about the smell of a kitchen where yeast is working its magic. You just know you’re in the right place and all is well with the world - you can feel yourself relax.

With her usual no nonsense approach Mary whipped up a basic hummus recipe which she then flavoured in three different ways while she talked through low fat alternatives to the ingredients (fat free yoghurt instead of oil, half the tahini and a teaspoon of sesame oil to fool the nose into thinking more tahini is included - genius). In less than 10 minutes the table was covered with bowls of delicious creamy, garlicky, lemony and peppery versions of the old favourite some smooth and unxious others textured and interesting. Meanwhile, aubergines were roasting in the oven ready to blend with oil garlic and yoghurt into my favourite dip: baba ganoush. 

Returning to the dough, Mary showed us how to knock back and knead explained what was happening to the dough during these processes and got us to feel the texture changing as the dough became elastic and ready for its second rise.

She then turned to the main course. Now this really was the eye opener of the day. In 2 minutes flat she roasted and ground a spice mix featuring coriander, cumin, sumac and za’atar which formed the basis of a marinade for the pork and a dry rub. We were going to eat the meat treated each way to see what we preferred. More later.

This is one of the two great features of Mary’s dine and demo days and it’s why she is a natural teacher. Mary’s view of food and recipes is that nothing is set in stone. Everyone is capable of (and should be) using their own experience and preferences to shape their cooking. It’s immensely liberating and blows away the intimidation of those three day recipes with their 40 item ingredient lists.

And that’s the other thing – Mary is nothing if not practical. She knows what it is to be missing a single ingredient after the shops are shut or to have someone in the family who won’t eat almonds. So she’s very relaxed about substitutions. In fact through all of the recipes she actively encouraged experimentation suggesting alternatives and how they might ring the changes to a core recipe. I calculated we actually got about 10 different meals suggested to us as the morning progressed. Now that’s what I call value for money!

While the spices did their work with the pork, Mary mixed a quick and delicious tabbouleh with bulgar wheat, salad vegetables and herbs flavoured with lemon juice, pomegranate molasses and za’atar. The result was a clean, fresh, lively base for the meat which will be the basis of many a meal for me in the future. I can’t wait to try it with roasted fish and it is going feature in many a packed lunch and BBQ this summer.

We turned to the baklava next and leaned how to handle the different sorts of filo pastry. While the nectarines were roasting with vanilla and oranges, Mary mixed nuts with sugar and cinnamon and then layered the baklava up ready for baking. A syrup, made with oranges and sugar, was poured over the finished dish and our mouths watered.

While that cooled, Mary roasted the cauliflower in cinnamon and cumin and then dressed it with tomatoes, chickpeas and feta cheese tossed in harrissa lemon juice and herbs. The finished dish, jewelled with pomegranate seeds, was truly beautiful and the flavours were inspirational.

Finally, while Mary griddled the pork we all got to roll out, shape and cook the flat breads. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to work the dough. As for eating freshly baked flat bread still warm from the hot plate?  Heavenly. We sat down to our lunch – a Middle Eastern feast. Full of the spirit and flavours of the region but relaxed about being transferred to the busy life of a British household: delicious, straightforward, immensely achievable, perfect. I’ve road tested each recipe at home since. They all worked perfectly and family and friends cleaned their plates.

Highly Recommended. Oh and my preference for the pork? The marinated version was so tender I thought I was eating veal – scrumptious.

Kate Holt

Kate Holt has organised events in both the public, private, not for profit and voluntary sectors for many years. She is currently the Managing Director of event creation and management company Happening up North.

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